The wilder side of romance - with the Cheshire Wildlife Trust

Great crested grebes. Photo: Steve Waterhouse

Great crested grebes. Photo: Steve Waterhouse - Credit: Steve Waterhouse

It’s not just humans who celebrate love this month. Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Katie Piercy guides us through the wilder side of romance

A kingfisher ready to give his gift. Photo: Jon Hawkins

A kingfisher ready to give his gift. Photo: Jon Hawkins - Credit: Jon Hawkins

The origin of Valentine’s Day, like many of our best loved festivals, isn’t an easy thread to unravel. The tale of Saint Valentine is appealingly heroic. A priest living under the rule of the Roman Emperor Claudius II, Valentine secretly married lovers despite the emperor having placed a ban on matrimony. Thrown in jail for his defiance, our hero sends the first ever Valentine’s card on the eve of his execution, signing it to his love ‘from your Valentine’.

However, as beautiful a beginning as this may seem to be, many now believe that, like Easter and Christmas, the original festival was far older than this Christian adaptation: a celebration of fertility and the coming of spring may once have stood in place of the global love-fest we see today. However, in many ways the two concepts aren’t as different as they first appear, as spring is a time of courtship for more than just human couples. For many animals, in fact ,this is the perfect moment to be strutting their stuff, presenting gifts and making vows to their chosen partner.

On February 14th as restaurants fill with couples holding hands across the table and gazing into each other’s eyes the same old question seems to come up; is this ‘the one’? On this special day finding (or keeping) a partner for life seems to be most people’s ambition. And yet many have argued that monogamy is an unnatural state.

Looking to the animal kingdom, they cite the fallow deer with his harem of females, the black grouse with his lek or even the common mallard, one of the most promiscuous creatures ever to set foot in your local pond. And it’s true, most creatures choose not to pair for life. Some fend off their rivals, claiming multiple females for themselves, rather than selecting a single mate. Others pair only for a season. Although around 90% of birds practice monogamy most do so only for a year at a time. Some animals even pretend to be happily settled only to cavort with other suitable mates whenever the opportunity arises.

Turtle dove. Photo: Dawn Monrose

Turtle dove. Photo: Dawn Monrose - Credit: Dawn Monrose

In total only 3-5% of mammal species are believed to mate for life. And yet for those looking to use this as a reason to avoid settling down, exceptions are perhaps more significant than the rule. Anything from swans, to beavers, to parasitic worms have been found to keep to their chosen partner, suggesting that if even the little guys can give it a go then it’s not as good an excuse as it first sounds.

One of the most famous life-long lovers is the turtle dove. Referenced in the Bible, praised by Shakespeare and even now used as a symbol of eternal love, the turtle dove has for many become synonymous with romance. Like most doves their mating ritual involves a good deal of ruffled feathers and a confident strut (not unlike some of our human attempts at flirtation). Once chosen, the male will help raise the chicks alongside the female year after year, showing himself to be more than a one night stand.

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For many, Valentine’s Day isn’t just about giving one’s heart, but also about receiving something a little more costly. In 2015 UK lovers spent nearly a billion pounds on Valentine’s Day, with over half the money going on gifts. While a bright pink teddy bear clasping an oversized heart is undoubtedly a very human invention, the concept of giving gifts to win over your partner’s affection isn’t. Kingfishers are well-known for presenting their mate with a tasty fish to seal the deal. The ladies can even be fussy enough about their present, to differentiate between size and species. How the fish is handed over is also vital. No female wants to be given her gift ‘fin first’, meaning a bit of juggling is required.

Other birds to value a symbolic gesture prior to choosing their man include great crested grebes, the emblem of Cheshire Wildlife Trust. These elegant waterfowl exchange bits of weed after performing an elaborate, graceful ballet. But it’s not just birds that insist on getting something in exchange for their affections.

Burnet moth. Photo: Les Binns

Burnet moth. Photo: Les Binns - Credit: Les Binns

While few insects mate for life, or indeed keep to one partner in a season, many do require their mate to stump up for the pleasure of fathering the next generation. Scorpionflies, for example, produce a high nutrient spit which the females can feed on to provide enough energy for their pregnancy. Six-spotted burnet moths have a rather deadly way of showing their affections. These brightly coloured insects carry a good amount of cyanide in their body, which is an excellent deterrent for any birds which might fancy them as a tasty snack. The male sweetens the deal for his female by passing on a parcel of this toxic substance during courtship, boosting her levels temporarily, although eventually she will need to pass on some of this to her offspring.

For those who find themselves in the earliest stages of romance on Valentine’s Day there may be a way to go before vows can be exchanged or even gifts presented. In wooing their partner, animals can be said to go to extremes that even us humans could take inspiration from. The hen harrier is an excellent example. Having found a special lady, our magnificent silver male will climb to dizzying height as she watches from below. Dropping gracefully through the firmament our lover performs a series of loops, one after another without pause. If this magnificent skydance isn’t enough to get a lady swooning then who knows what is.

So, perhaps whatever the origins of Valentine’s Day, some common themes exist. All around us the birds are calling out their challenges, pairs long parted are returning to each other’s side and insects are preparing that one special present she just can’t say no to.

But while spring is certainly a hive of activity it’s important to note that wildlife doesn’t restrict its amore to just one day a year. Stags rut in autumn, crossbills nest in winter and many of our species which start their courtships in spring will carry on late into the summer, raising as many offspring as they can.

So although Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate all kinds of love, both human and wider, perhaps it’s also worth taking a leaf from nature’s book and remembering to spread it out a little through the year.