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A Sky Full of Birds

In Search of Murders, Murmurations and Britain’s Great Bird Gatherings

By Matt Merritt
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
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A Sky Full of Birds by Matt Merritt

A Sky Full of Birds (2016) is a celebration of birdlife in Britain. These blinks offer fascinating insights into mating rituals and migration patterns and explain the cultural significance of murmurations, murders, swan songs, and more.

Key idea 1 of 8

Dancing, strutting and fighting are just some of the ways British birds lure female mates.

Birds, much like we humans, need a solid strategy to woo the mate they want. From dancers to strutters, birds are veritable flirting experts. Let’s take a closer look at the things that the great-crested grebe, the capercaillie and the black grouse do in the name of love.

Unlike some other species such as crows who seek out lifetime partners, the great- crested grebe finds a new lover yearly. And, while other female birds select their mate based on gaudy feathers or long tails, the female great-crested grebe is after a mate that knows how to move it; the most desirable males are those that dance the most elegantly.

This behavior is rather unusual, even for the bird world. Great-crested grebes will pirouette and paddle rapidly toward one another until they’re just about to crash before rising sharply, breast to breast, in a pas de deux.

Unlike the great-crested grebe, capercaillies are more fond of strutting. These birds are rarely seen, having become officially extinct in Britain in 1785; they have been reintroduced at various stages since 1837.

These days, the capercaillie is found in Scottish pineland, and looks like a rather handsome turkey or a larger black grouse. To find a mate, capercaillies will make the most of their good looks and strut about in forest clearings known as leks.

The black grouse also returns to leks for the mating season. Every November, males gather in the forest, awaiting the arrival of their females. They’re loyal to them, too. After all, it can sometimes take up to two months before the females finally arrive! To gain their attention, the male black grouse will pace around and emit a bizarre call while fanning out his tail.

Fights between males often break out, with the winners garnering considerable admiration from females. Interestingly, the act of mating also attracts females, who’ll often rush over to a male who’s just finished intercourse with another grouse.

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