Shake your tail feather

With vivid colours and extravagant feathers, these birds certainly know how to put on a show in their energetic courtship displays


While feathers are traditionally used for flight and to trap pockets of air close to the bird’s body to keep it warm, several species have evolved some extraordinary feathers, which they use to show off during the breeding season. Courtship displays often involve dances or ritualised movements and vocalisations, which emphasise the bird’s fitness, strength and beauty to a potential partner.

Whether it’s wagging their feathers back and forth like the turquoise-browed motmot, flipping them up overhead like the superb lyrebird, or flying with them draping down like the long-tailed widowbird, these birds will go to extreme lengths – in some cases literally – to display their suitability as a mate. These performers demand centre stage.


Male long-tailed widowbirds wear a long, black cloak of tail feathers

These magnificent African birds show off their extremely long tail feathers by flying from dusk to dawn over their territory

Found in the grasslands of the African savannah, the male long-tailed widowbird undergoes a wonderful transformation to attract a mate. When the young males mature into breeding adults their colouring changes from brown to black with vibrant red-orange and white shoulder details. Six to eight of their 12 tail feathers will also grow up to 50 centimetres (19.8 inches) in length, and research has proven that females prefer males with longer tails.

While other birds perform energetic courtship displays, the long-tailed widowbird demonstrates its beauty and stamina by flying. From sunrise to sunset during the breeding season, the male flies slowly over his territory, draping his magnificent feathers like a cloak below him and chasing off other males. As well as flying displays, long-tailed widowbirds also perform static displays. The bird arches his wings in order to show off his elaborate colouring and creates a hood shape with his feathers while using vocal calls to attract the attention of females in the vicinity.


Turquoise-browed motmot’s wag their tails to scare off predators

This colourful bird inhabits Central America and relies on its elegant plumage to attract a mate and ward off danger

Turquoise-browed motmots sport an array of colours and are often found perching out in the open in the scrublands of Central America. This stunning bird’s most distinguishing features are its brilliant blue flight feathers and tail feathers. Their tail feathers are much longer than their bodies, and the central feathers are naked stalks for more than half of their length, featuring beautiful blue and black discs at the tip.

Unusually, both males and females have these elongated tail feathers, but studies have shown that females prefer males with longer tail feathers. It is the males who use these racket-shaped feathers during courtship to signal to potential mates during the breeding season. Their stunning plumage has another function for both species though, as when faced with a predator (including the white-nosed coati) the birds wag their tails back and forth like a pendulum. It is thought that this movement acts as a deterrent and lets the predator know they are ready to escape.


Wilson’s bird-of-paradise reflects light with its spiral-shaped feathers

While not the longest, the eccentric curled tail feathers of the Wilson’s bird-of-paradise are certainly the most fancy

Boasting some vivid and bizarre feathers, the Wilson’s bird-of- paradise certainly stands out from the rainforests it inhabits on the Indonesian islands of Waigeo and Batanta. These unique birds are just 16 centimetres (6.3 inches) in length and have a blue, featherless head with black patterning, a yellow mantle, blue feet and a short but elaborate tail. Their two tail feathers are deep purple, reflective and spiral-shaped, coiling to form the shape of a fancy moustache. Before starting his routine, the Wilson’s bird-of-paradise clears the ground around him, setting the stage in order to make his feathers appear as bright as possible. Once he has caught a female’s attention he takes centre stage and flashes his vibrant feathers in a beautiful display, reflecting light from his tail to catch her eye.


It takes superb lyrebirds seven years to grow their tail feathers

This ground-dwelling Australian impersonator puts on a truly show-stopping display when it comes to wooing the ladies

Native to the rainforests of southeastern Australia, the male superb lyrebird has a delicate tail of feathers that certainly makes up for its lack of colour. Superb lyrebirds are shy, pheasant-like birds and spend their lives mostly on the ground. Their long, strong legs are perfect for digging for worms and insects such as beetles and cockroaches on the forest floor and for escaping danger. They also have an intriguing ability to mimic a wide range of sounds, including the calls, songs and wing beats of other species.

Superb lyrebirds are named after the male’s lacy, white plumes and outer pair of curved tail feathers, which form the shape of a lyre – a harp-like instrument from ancient Greece. Their train consists of 16 feathers, which are up to 70 centimetres (27.6 inches) in length and take up to seven years to grow. During breeding season males perform courtship displays, flipping up their lacy tail feathers and fanning them out over their head while vibrating them in an attempt to draw the gaze of a female.


Words: Amelia Jones

There are even more spectacular tail feathers in Issue 61 of World of Animals! Today’s your last day to get a copy in store but you can still find it online.