Nine weird and wonderful animal courtship rituals

Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION

Love is in the air, hormones are running high and, with the approach of spring, fascinating courtship rituals are taking place in the natural world.

Here are seven animals that put on particularly wonderful – and sometimes downright weird – displays to attract a mate.

Smooth newt

Smooth newts wake up from hibernation on mild February nights to take part in an elaborate courtship ritual. The male raises his impressive crest, trembles and then whips his tail back and forth against his body, wafting chemical signals towards the object of his desire. The more extravagant his crest, the worthier a mate he is, and if the female is impressed she’ll take the packet of sperm he has dropped to fertilise her eggs. How romantic.

Two hares boxing in a field

Andy Rouse/2020VISION

Brown hare

Perhaps the best-known courtship ritual of all UK wildlife, the boxing of brown hares is unmissable.

A surge of testosterone sparks this infamous spring spectacle which sees overly amorous males (bucks) chasing females (does) across fields at full-tilt throughout the month of March, hence the phrase ‘mad as a March hare’.

It is actually the female hares that initiate the boxing match. If the buck is pushing his luck, the doe will whip around to fend him off with flailing feet.


Okay, so it isn’t technically a courtship ritual, but did you know that male adders take part in an impressive dance to fight for their mate? They emerge from hibernation on warm, early spring days and spend around a month basking in the sunshine, living off fat reserves from the previous year. Once they are done basking they shed their skin, and then it’s time to bust out their best moves.

On their quest for a mate, male adders follow scent trails left by females, but they have a lot of competition. If another male tries to move in on an adder’s partner he will defend her aggressively, and the two competitors end up rising off the ground as they entwine their bodies around one another in a show of strength. It’s all about posturing, pushing and shoving.

A pair of male black grouse lekking at dawn

Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Black grouse

Once a familiar sight across much of the UK, black grouse have suffered tragic declines. In some areas these birds are disappearing at rates of between 10 – 40 per cent each year.

In the pockets where they do still survive, black grouse can be seen lekking to attract a mate. A lek is a traditional area where both male and female black grouse gather. As the sun rises the air fills with the bubbling and hissing of displaying males who compete for the best displaying space within the lek, intimidating rivals by running towards them with their heads down, red eyebrow wattles flared and bright white tails raised. Then comes the clash, when the two spar in mid-air by ‘flutter-jumping’.

Female black grouse, known as greyhens, watch from the side-lines and have the final say; choosing the fittest and most dominant males.

Vapourer moth

The vapourer moth is one of the weirdest insects on the wing, or not, in the case of the females.

Female vapourer moths emerge without wings and don’t move from the remains of their cocoon. Instead, they sit tight and emit incredibly strong pheromones that are picked up by nearby males who have been known to descend en-masse. After mating, the female will lay eggs on top of her old cocoon and die shortly after.

A male hen harrier soaring over moorland

Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Hen harrier

The UK’s most intensively persecuted bird of prey is also one of the most stunning, especially if you have the pleasure of witnessing its ‘sky dance’. This courtship behaviour involves the male hen harrier soaring high into the air before twisting and freefalling back to earth, then swooping skywards once more. Showing off his strength, skill and agility, this breath-taking dance is all to impress a very lucky lady.

Leopard slug

Leopard slugs’ mating habits are sensational, sticky and very, very strange. They hang upside down from a string of mucus and twist their slimy bodies together, but that isn’t the weirdest part. As they dangle and rotate, large blue tube-like growths emerge from each slug’s head and intertwine. These are the slugs’ penises, and they can expand to the length of their entire body!

As leopard slugs are hermaphrodites they can fertilise each other’s eggs, of which they can lay up to 200 after a mating session.

Great-crested grebes performing their amazing courtship display

Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION

Great crested grebe

We couldn’t mention the mating rituals of UK wildlife without talking about great crested grebes. Courtship between these gorgeous birds is a delicate affair and doesn’t begin until one has accepted the other with a ruffle of its feathers and a flaring of its resplendent ruff. Next, the water ballet can begin.

The grebes start by facing other and shaking their heads from side to side, occasionally turning to preen the feathers on their back: a sultry come hither. Then, the grebes dive, resurfacing with clumps of weed in their bills and rushing towards each other, meeting breast-to-breast and rearing high out of the water, paddling wildly as they do so and turning in a frantic waltz.

The birds repeat this dance until they suddenly settle back onto the water and share one last head-shake; paired.

Two of the best places to watch great crested grebes performing their courtship dance are our Mere Sands Wood nature reserve in Ormskirk, and our Wigan Flashes nature reserve. Visit between February and April and you might be treated to a special viewing of this elegant performance.

Plan your trip to Mere Sands Wood

Plan your trip to Wigan Flashes