Cranes Mate For Life, Often With Their Childhood Sweethearts

In what is probably the most awww-inducing story of the week, researchers have confirmed that whooping cranes mate for life, often starting their relationship as childhood sweethearts. Courting begins early and the couple expends a whole year( if not more) building a relationship before breed, according to a new analyse published in the December issue of Animal Behaviour.

The fact that cranes- like many birds– kind long-term monogamous partnerships is not in itself transgressing news, but the formation of these couplings has been under-studied and many researchers have( incorrectly) assumed relationships develop shortly before first breeding. This appears to be the first time ecologists have examined the entire life history of a migratory population of whooping cranes and analyzed the relationship between couples before breeding begins.

Claire Teitelbaum, a PhD student from the University of Georgia in Athens, Greece, and co-workers followed a group of whooping cranes that had been reintroduced into the eastern United States back in 2001, fitting each bird with a unique leg band and a transmitter. In total, there were 89 individuals who, over the course of such studies, forged 58 partnerships.

The majority of these partnerships( 62 percent) began associating a year or more before breeding together. And while courting usually lasted between 11 and 12 months, there were 16 suits( 28 percent) where it lasted two years or more. There was at least one report of a pair who spent a long 4.5 years getting to know each other before breeding.

Another interesting observation- 60 percent of couples began associating before at the least one of the pair had reached sexual maturity, which happens when a bird is around three years old. This seems to suggest that there is some social advantage to procuring a mate earlier rather than afterward. Previous research has shown that survival rates are higher among paired up birds and that an early-life match can help cranes achieve a more dominant status.

But these couplings are not fully without a hitch. In fact, much like human relationships, they can objective in divorce. The researchers noted seven separations during the study. In four occurrences, both people were able to find another partner. In the remaining three, merely the females entered a second relationship. There were also 13 examples of a widowed-bird forming another partnership.

We’ll have to wait and see how common this behavior is across the bird population as a whole but it does show that whooping cranes pick their partners very , very carefully. And it’s probably just as well because they expend over 70 percent of their time together.

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