Supermodels have more to offer than just their poses—and birds are no exception. Behind every vogue display is a decisive adaption, a quirky behavior, or an act of passion.
In the entries for our photo awards this year, we saw courage, heart, and brains. From songbirds wreaking havoc on much larger raptors, to couples dancing in the throes of courtship, the spectrum of performances is near infinite. We're just lucky that our contestants were able to get them on camera.
Enjoy these candid takes, and learn more about each species and its "etiquette" below.
(Above) Bow Down
Most members of the sandpiper family are not known for fancy feathers, but the Ruff—widespread in Europe and Asia—is a stunning exception. In spring, during breeding season, male Ruffs develop long neck plumes in a wide variety of colors. They then gather on display grounds called leks, and dance and show off to attract females. Scientists are still unraveling the functions of the different Ruff color patterns.
Zaha Hadid's Understudy
Many African weaverbirds live up to the family name by weaving elaborate nests out of grass or other plant fibers. This male Vitelline Masked Weaver draws attention with a courtship display by hanging upside down under the nest, singing and waving his wings. With all that effort, he can hardly have his architectural skills be overlooked.
Get Off My Lawn
Maybe that red patch on his wing is a chip on his shoulder, but this male Red-winged Blackbird is an uber-confident bird. Throughout the nesting season, he’ll chase away any large bird that approaches his territory—even one as large as this young Bald Eagle. Raptors that trespass on a large marsh containing multiple blackbird territories have it even worse; they'll likely be escorted off the premises by a whole string of raucous male Red-wings.
Zero Gender Boundaries
In many bird species, females do most of the work of rearing the young. But male woodpeckers are often model dads, taking an equal role in digging the nest cavity, incubating the eggs, and feeding the chicks. Here, a Black-backed Woodpecker couple (male with a yellow crown patch, female without) arrives to feed a juvenile male that’s begging from inside the nest.
Get at Me, Mah
A male European Stonechat flies in to feed its stub-tailed fledgling in a meadow in Switzerland. Stonechats build their nests on or near the ground. In many low-nesting songbirds, the young leave the nest as soon as they can, before they’re able to fly well. Evidently the dangers of being out in the world are not as risky as being grounded—and being sitting ducks, so to speak, for passing predators.
Baby's First Hitchhike
One way to make sure the kids are safe: carry them on your back. During the first couple of weeks after a Common Loon hatches, it often rests on the back of one of its parents. This chick-carrying behavior must have major advantages, because it crops up in unrelated groups of water birds, including loons, grebes, swans, geese, and some ducks.
Only One Way Up
For young owls, leaving the nest is seldom a graceful act. Often they outgrow their nest space before they can fly, so they venture out onto adjacent branches. Young Great Gray Owls frequently wind up falling, but their fluffy down cushions their landing, and usually they can clamber up a handy tree trunk by flapping of their stubby wings. The goal: Get back up to a safe perch above the ground.
The Moss Is Always Greener
Our most aquatic songbird, the American Dipper, is almost never seen away from rushing mountain streams. It finds almost all its food underwater, walking and swimming against the current to nab invertebrates and tiny fish. Its nest, a globular mass of mosses, is always placed close to the water—sometimes so close that spray keeps the moss green and growing.
There Will Be Blood
The two species of giant petrels are most reliably distinguished by the color of the bill tip—unless their bills are covered with blood, which is actually quite often. These big, ungainly seabirds range widely over the southern oceans, preying on smaller ocean creatures (including penguins), fighting over seal carcasses, and scavenging o dumped by ships.
The courtship dances of prairie grouse are among the most iconic spectacles of springtime in North America. Sage-grouse and prairie-chickens may be better known for their waltzes, but Sharp-tailed Grouse can also show off some impressive dance moves. The males are the ones who get down while vying to attract the attention of females. Fights between rival males are frequent but brief, and may be mostly for showing off.
A Love/Hate Relationship
The grebe family contains only about 20 species, but is collectively found almost all around the world. This Silvery Grebe, a South American species, was photographed at a pond on the Falkland Islands, where a few pairs were going through breeding-season rituals. A simple but fiece posture like this might be used for either aggression or courtship. The birds, at least, seem to be able to tell the difference.
Stunting for Appetizers
Great Egrets may seem to be the most patient of anglers, standing stock-still at the water’s edge or wading slowly through the shallows, waiting for a fish to come within striking range. When patience fails, however, they’ll explode out over the water. At times they’ll even hover or flutter low to grab a fish from just below the surface.