Nature's Valentine's Day

The Love Bug - The lure of rotting carcasses help male and female American Burying Beetles find each other in the expanse of habitat found on Block Island.

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner it seems only appropriate to write about some of the more interesting mating rituals of Rhode Island’s wild animals.  Now, granted, these animals do not celebrate a certain day but instead base their mating cycle on day length, weather, and food availability.  Each species of animal has it own special way of “getting in the mood” and often the ritual helps make sure that reproductive process has the greatest chance of success.

In the late winter and spring, the courtship display of the American Woodcock can be seen between dusk and dawn, especially during the full moon in large meadows. As it starts to get dark the male American woodcock, with its wings whistling (the outer wing feathers of the woodcock are modified with a small gap between feathers to produce the whistling sound) flies in widening spirals rising up to 100 feet, circles his highest point and zigzags to earth like a falling leaf.  When it reaches the ground it releases a nasal “peent.” This display is repeated many times.  It is truly amazing to watch.
In late May or early June, the male marsh wren will build up to 30 nests on his established territory (in reedy marsh grass).  When a female approaches, he takes a position slightly above the female and fluffs his breast while flapping partially-folded wings.  The male then takes the female to inspect each nest and if she find one that she likes then they will mate.  He feeds the female mostly aquatic insects while she incubates the eggs.  Once the eggs hatch both the male and female feed the chicks until they are fully fledged.

In late June, the American burying beetle is prowling the grasslands of Block Island (only place found in the state) for rotting carcasses or carrion for reproduction.  They prefer one that is between 100 and 200 grams, usually a pheasant chick or rat.  Once a suitable piece of carrion is found the male and female bury it together.  They then create a cavern around the item with a mating chamber off to the side.  They then pluck the feathers or fur from the body and coat it with secretions to keep it from rotting further.  After mating, the female lays the eggs on the dead animal and when the larvae hatch, they eat the carrion for a little more than a week and then crawl into the soil to pupate (develop into adults).  The newly-mature adults emerge from the soil 45 to 60 days after the parents initially bury the carcass. Unlike most insects the parents watch over their larvae during the whole process.  

While this is an account of some of the more interesting mating rituals of wildlife in Rhode Island, it is important to remember that each species is unique in the way it approaches reproduction.  So remember for Valentine’s Day and the coming spring to keep an eye out for Rhode Island’s unique fauna and their rituals.



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