At first blush, birds might not seem romantic. But if you’ve ever called a cuddling couple “a pair of lovebirds,” you’re part of a long tradition of equating birds with romantic love. In fact, before Chaucer scored a literary hit during the Middle Ages with The Canterbury Tales, he wrote a long poem about birds gathering to choose their mates on Valentine’s Day. (Synopsis: They twitter on about finding the perfect partner.)
Although most birds don’t mate for life, a few species actually do form lifelong pair bonds, mating and raising chicks together year after year. If one of the pair dies, the other usually searches for a new mate. And if two young birds don’t manage to produce chicks after a few tries, they may undergo what biologists call a “bird divorce” and look for luckier partners.
So which bird species mate for life? Tufted puffins, the sea birds with a punk rock haircut that appear on a new 2013 stamp, make the list, as do mute swans and California condors. Bald eagles, the symbol of the United States, also couple up. Before choosing a mate, bald eagles practice a courtship ritual known as the “cartwheel display.” A male and female bald eagle grip each other’s talons and twirl through the air together, taking their bond for a spin before settling down for good.
Whooping cranes court in a more human way, performing elaborate dances together before making their choice. Appropriately enough, barn owls, known for their heart-shaped faces, also mate for life. Barn owls become especially attached to their mates, or to their human handlers if they don’t have a mate. If you’re in the mood for an unconventional love story this February, try picking up Wesley the Owl by Stacey O’Brien, a memoir about a woman’s bond with the barn owl that she raises from a chick.