How nature prepares for Valentine’s Day
16:29 13 February 2017
Getting amorous for Valentine’s? So is our wildlife. Charlotte Hussey of Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust looks at courtship rituals among the county’s animals as they prepare for spring
While we are busy giving flowers, chocolates and cards on Valentine’s Day, our wildlife has its own ways of showing affection. The weather may still be wintry but animals are getting ready for spring, and that means one thing – wooing potential mates.
Courting in the animal world comes in many different forms. Some Antarctic penguins search for the perfect pebble to present to their object of affection; flamingos congregate in huge colonies in South America and Africa of up to 100,000 individuals. Here large groups move in sequence, doing anything from marching, honking or bobbing their heads back and forth to impress.
You don’t have to go thousands of miles to see fantastic animal behaviour – just out and about on our local nature reserves.
Lengthening days and a bit of sunshine result in a surge of hormones and you can hear many birds singing to establish territories at this time. The mistle thrush is one such bird and is often seen in urban areas, including Verulamium Park car park where Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s offices are based. Mistle thrush courtship is one of the earliest of any of the garden species, with nest building sometimes starting in February. The birds aren’t fussy about sites and build nests on rock ledges, buildings and the more usual fork of a branch – but all a safe distance above ground. Blackbirds can also be heard singing now, while overwintering chiffchaffs will become very vocal at even the hint of a sunny day.
Around February, frogs will start to emerge from hibernation, making their way back to wetlands to mate. This journey means that frogs can be spotted almost anywhere – in meadows, woods and gardens. Frogs are unusual in that they are able to absorb oxygen through their skin, which enables them to hibernate at the bottom of ponds, safe from most predators. Males that do this have an advantage over those which have hibernated on land as they will be able to establish breeding territories immediately, ready for the arrival of females. Male frogs court a mate by croaking incessantly – where there are large gatherings there can be quite a chorus! Females are usually considerably outnumbered by males and this results in some seriously aggressive battles to win a mate.
During the breeding period, males develop enlarged pads on their thumbs, which help them to hold on to females during the grasping mating position known as amplexus. Once the bond is formed, females will lay many hundreds of eggs in a large clump which the male fertilises. The breeding frenzy is soon over and what remains are thousands of eggs wallowing in the shallows. Eggs hatch within a week or so and over the next couple of months will develop into froglets which then leave the breeding site and head off to find food and shelter on the surrounding land.
February is a special time for badgers as the females, or sows, give birth to cubs around 12cm long and born blind and also without their characteristic eye stripes at this stage. Badgers have the ability to use delayed implantation – mating can take place at any time of the year and females can keep the fertilised eggs in the womb until they implant at the end of December. This means cubs can be born in time for spring, when there is plentiful food available.
So while everything can seem cold and quiet outside, February if you know where to look is actually a hive of activity in the animal world.
Why not take your Valentine for a romantic walk around one of Herts’ nature reserves this February? Find out where you could go at hertswildlifetrust.org.uk