Photos by Brian Merchant
Today, on the coast of the Galapagos Island Espanola, I saw two birds with blue feet puff themselves up, awkwardly cuddle, and then proceed to dance around with all the grace of teenagers at a junior high dance. I had never planned on devoting an article to the mating rituals of rare, weird-looking birds. I was going to make it a point to focus solely on hot-button issues with global resonance. But then I saw the blue-footed boobies getting down and dirty, and my world was turned upside down.The spectacle was so bizarre, and so intriguing that I've decided to dedicate a post to it—with the help of naturalist/photographer Pete Oxford, who's an expert on the Galapagos. I was lucky enough to snap photos of the raunchy ritual, and Oxford took me through the boobies' dance step by step.
So, I'll explain each step along with the pictures I took of the seductive salsa. Oxford also notes that we should pay attention to how their ritual seems somehow oddly familiar—in many ways, it's a simplified, accelerated version of our own.
A Complete Guide to the Blue-Footed Boobies' Dirty Dance
1. When it's mating season, the birds need to attract a mate. So, as Oxford says, they need to "put on a sexy dress." This requirement falls to the males, who are charged with attracting the female boobies. They preen themselves, and make sure they look slick enough to turn heads.
2. The males then wait on the ground for a female to fly overhead. When he sees one that's to his liking, he'll point everything he's got—beak, wings, chest—up to the sky and whistle obnoxiously to get her attention. Sound familiar, ladies?
3. When he finally attracts a suitably buxom boobie, he'll try to gain her trust, and signal that he's in it for the long term. Boobies don't nest, so he'll pick up a stone or a twig with his beak as an offering—sort of like presenting a wedding ring, or signing a mortgage. He says, "Well I don't have my own place yet, but things are looking pretty good . . ."
4. If the female is still interested, she'll stick around. And now, satisfied that he's the real deal, ready for commitment and so forth—she needs to make sure he can groove. The male will initiate this supremely bizarre dance, wobbling back and forth, raising one leg after another, and continuing to make high-pitched calls. If she's into it, she'll join him on the dance floor.
5. Finally, if he's got the right moves, she'll let him get intimate—but they take things slow at first, of course. She'll allow him to preen her with his beak, which is a big sign of trust. The beak is the boobies' most dangerous weapon, and to let him use it in such intimate context is much when we human touch tooth-filled mouths in our own weird ritual.
6. When she's satisfied, the male celebrates and they get it on to a mix tape of Marvin Gaye and Barry White. Okay, not that last part. But the rest is all true.
30 of the top teachers in the US are making a trek from the Florida Everglades to the Galapagos Islands in order to engage a series of global conservation issues in the Toyota International Teacher Program. I'm traveling alongside the educators to report on what we discover about the threats and wonders on modern day Galapagos.