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Day 25: "Are yer courting?"

Posted: Sunday 25th June 2017 by 30DaysWild2017

Two hedgehogs begin "courtship behaviour"Two hedgehogs begin "courtship behaviour"

What did Mrs Tiggy-Winkle really do? “Courtship behaviour” gives us the wrong idea of what animals do when they reproduce.

Does anyone “pay court” these days? The dictionary says it is, “the act of seeking the love of someone with intent to marry”. That sounds pretty coy now, but 60 years ago the catch phrase taken from a radio show, of “Are yer courting?” was immensely popular. It was used with a nudge and wink, everyone knew that courting would hopefully lead to sex, but you could not say it, that was taboo, something that nice people did not talk about.

Not only was it a taboo among people when talking about their own behaviour it was also a taboo when talking about wildlife and courtship was widely used in descriptions of the reproductive behaviour of familiar wild animals. Since reproduction is at the heart of evolution by natural selection this coyness stopped people thinking clearly about just what was driving many of the behaviours that they observed.

Things have freed up now and these taboos no longer apply so strictly to humans or to wildlife with the consequence that we are closer to understanding just what goes on when animals are reproducing themselves. We still have some coyness and one sign of that is the continued use of “courtship behaviour” when applied to mammals and birds, and sometimes even butterflies and dragonflies. Most reproduction does not involve seeking love and there is no marriage, but courtship is still used when we talk about many instances of reproductive behaviour.

HedgehogThis was brought home to me a couple of nights ago when I was watching the behaviour of three hedgehogs in my garden. Every evening I put out a tray of food around about dusk, I call it the hedgehog banquet. Before long a hedgehog turns up, eats some of the food, ambles off, perhaps to return later in the night. I just lie in bed and watch it all on the video, every inch the modern naturalist, I depend upon gadgets for my observations! (See Blog Day 5).

On this particular night I was treated to what is described as hedgehog Cover of book Hedgehogs by Pat Morriscourtship, and incorporating some male-male rivalry. Pat Morris in his book on Hedgehogs uses the term “Courtship” quite freely but he does point out that it is, “a rather ill-tempered and seemingly tedious affair”, and that is what I witnessed. It started with some shoving of what I assume was the female by the larger male, with the female retreating to one side and curling into a ball, the male then had a feed and then went back to nudging the female.

Another hog turned up and was also attacked by the male. This could have been a rival male or perhaps another female. This behaviour with one or two curled up while another one did the attacking, lasted for some time until eventually the male and one of the females started to circle around each other. At this point the other hog uncurled from its ball and scurried off. The circling continued for some time and ended with the female walking slowly backwards in circles nose-to-nose with the male and they eventually wandered off still nose-to nose across the lawn and away from the camera.

THe tale of Mrs Tiggy-WinkleSo was this the start of a lasting relationship? To use the courtship analogy was there now an “intent to marry”? Certainly not, because that is not what hedgehogs do. The ritual probably did end in copulation, so reproduction was underway, a good outcome for all the effort. There is, however, no lasting relationship between these two hogs. In fact the male and female could have gone on to repeat this behaviour with other hedgehogs that same night and are certainly likely to do so with others on a different night.

The mating system of hedgehogs is promiscuous. Individuals are trying to maximise their reproductive success and if it can be done without bonding with one individual then a promiscuous system is what evolves.

The coy ideas of marriage and lasting pairings between wild animals is deeplyEurasain bluetit photo Francis Franklin engrained and thinking of reproduction in any other way is very difficult. The foundations of this misconception of what actually goes on is established very early on in everyone’s life, particularly through story books and films that anthropomorphise mammals, birds and even bees. These present animals as having family units with “mum and dad and children”. These anthropomorphised stories do not tell us about what wildlife actually does when it reproduces. The main purpose of these tales is to reinforce an idealised view how humans should behave.

Barn Swallow photo CharlesjsharpPromiscuity, or at least an absence of fidelity to a single mate, is very common in the natural world. It is now well established that in many of our common birds mating with multiple partners is common. Species known to reproduce in this way include Dunnocks, Blue Tits, and Swallows. There may be a single nest and a clutch of eggs around which reproductive effort is focused, but just whose eggs they are is not as we might assume. Prior to the laying of each egg there might have been some kind of “courtship” but it may well have involved different individuals.

No doubt Wilfred Pickles who asked that “Are yer courting?” question on his radio show  in the 1960s would have been shocked to read this blog. He would have thought that wildlife and people shouldn’t act like that, it was a question of morals. But hedgehogs are simply behaving in a way that has evolved to maximise the reproductive success of their species.

Graham Martin, Chair of the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust, opinions are my own not those of the Trust., @GrahamMartin99

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