Have you ever seen two birds with their beaks together and wondered if they were kissing?
Birds often touch beak to beak. But their kisses don’t mean the same thing as they do for humans.
Kissing in birds often has a much more practical function.
Birds do often touch beaks in their courtship rituals. In some species, this beak-to-beak action is accompanied by regurgitating food into the intended mate’s mouth.
Birds may also kiss when they are preening each other’s feathers.
Parrots can even be taught to kiss while making a “smooch” sound. There are pet birds that will give their owners a peck on the lips as a sign of the avian equivalent of affection.
But beak-to-beak kissing isn’t an important part of the mating ritual of birds.
Read on if you want to know more about how birds make physical contact as a prelude to mating.
The Cloacal Kiss in Birds
Birds mate with a kiss. More specifically, they mate with a “cloacal kiss.”
Understanding what this kiss has to do with how birds court their mates and reproduce requires a little knowledge of bird anatomy.
Birds Don’t Have the Same Reproductive Structures as Humans
We won’t review how humans mate to have babies. We will assume you already know. We’ll just explain how birds are different.
Most birds don’t have external sex organs. Instead, they have an opening called a cloaca or a vent.
The vent serves as the exit point for the bird’s intestinal, urinary, and reproductive tracts. In both sexes, it is the opening through which feces and urine are excreted.
In females, it is the opening through which eggs are laid. In males, it is the duct for the release of sperm.
Birds make very small amounts of seminal fluid, because their sperm has a very short distance to travel.
Ready to Reproduce
In both male and female birds, the sex organs inside the cloaca begin to swell when the bird is ready to mate.
Sperm accumulate in the male until it is ready to mate.
Ova mature inside the female’s ovary (most birds have just one ovary, on the left) until they are ready to be released and receive sperm after the female bird mates,
Courtship Precedes Kissing
A great deal of preparation goes into the sex act for birds.
Male birds may fly back to their summer breeding ground a week or two earlier than females.
They scout out a good place to nest and claim it as their own. They may fight with other males for the most desirable places to build a nest, forage for food, and raise their young.
Some species of birds mate for life and other species of birds may have multiple mates for the same clutch of eggs.
Either way, the female chooses her first mate after an elaborate courtship ritual.
The male bird may display skillful acrobatics. The male Anna’s hummingbird, for example, dives down from 130 feet (40 meters) to impress females with his flying prowess.
Birds of paradise in New Guinea scrub the bark on trees to make sure everything is spice and span or their courtship dance. Male frigatebirds on Barbuda in the eastern Caribbean inflate a red, balloon-like pouch under their chins and fend off other males from taking their nesting spot in the mangrove forests.
Nodding birds circle and chirp at each other until they land on the limb where they want to build a nest.
Then they bow to each other, gently touching each other’s beaks, until they are ready to start the nest (which is how they got their name).
Male birds, no matter what the species, lure females with intricate songs, spectacularly colored plumage, and breathtaking acrobatics in flight.
These displays confirm to the female that the male is healthy and competent to provide for the nest.
The Reproductive Kiss Lasts Just a Second or Two
To perform the cloacal kiss, birds assume the avian equivalent of the missionary position.
Both birds face the same direction. The male balances on top of the female. They line up their cloacas, and the male releases sperm into the female.
Days or even weeks of courtship come to completion in just one to two seconds.
The balancing act may take longer than intercourse. Both birds remain sexually excited for about a week. They may attempt to mate several more times.
This ensures that the ova inside the female that are ready to mature into eggs will be fertilized.
Waterfowl Have Different Anatomy
Birds that live in water don’t mate with a cloaca kiss.
In ducks and geese, who often mate while they are on the water, splashing water could wash the sperm out of the female.
In these species, the male has a penis that he places inside the female for insemination.
Female Birds Never Look Pregnant
After the cloacal kiss fertilizes the egg or eggs inside the female, the eggs develop for 10 to 14 days.
During this time, you can’t tell the female is “expecting” just by looking at her. You won’t know she is ready to lay her eggs until she actually does.
Kissing Behaviors in Birds
Birds exhibit various kissing behaviors.
Some of these behaviors include:
- Beak touching: This is the most common form of kissing in birds. It involves two birds touching their beaks together for a brief moment.
- Nibbling: This involves one bird gently nibbling on the other bird’s beak, feathers, or skin. It is often seen as a sign of affection and bonding.
- Food exchange: This involves one bird regurgitating food for the other bird to eat. It is often seen as a sign of courtship and bonding.
- Preening: This involves one bird grooming the other bird’s feathers. It is often seen as a sign of affection and bonding between mates.
It is important to note that kissing behaviors in birds is not the same as kissing behaviors in humans.
While humans kiss as a sign of romantic love and affection, birds kiss as a sign of courtship, bonding, and affection.
If You See Birds Kissing
Many bird watchers are embarrassed when they realize that the “kissing” they observe in birds is actually birds having sex.
As far as we know, birds don’t get embarrassed by being watched by humans during mating. This is still, however, a delicate time for the two birds.
Avoid disturbing birds while they are engaging in sex. Frightened birds may fly away separately, and the pair bond they built up during courtship may be broken.
Or you may frighten the birds so they relocate to a less suitable location to raise their young.
Their new location may not provide the food, water, and shelter the nesting pair needs for the greatest possible number of their young to survive.
Once you have seen a pair of birds mate, you can safely assume they will build a nest nearby.
This is a great opportunity to observe a young family of birds but avoid disturbing the nest, so the parents do not feel forced to abandon their hatchlings.
Paying too much attention to a nest, eggs, and baby birds may draw the attention of predators, who can wipe out an entire generation of birds, and sometimes also the parents, in just a minute or two.
Frequently Asked Questions About Kissing and Mating in Birds
Q. What does it mean when my bird kisses me?
A. A kiss from your bird shows affection for you and familiarity with you.
A bird is very unlikely to give you a kiss before they are very comfortable having you around.
You will usually get your bird kisses on the cheek, not on the lips, although you can train birds to kiss you on your lips.
Q. Is it safe for me to kiss my bird?
A. It is not a good idea for you to kiss your bird. There are bacteria in your mouth that can infect your bird, and there are bacteria on your bird that can infect you.
The most serious disease you could get from kissing your bird is an infection called psittacosis.
Also known as parrot fever, this disease is carried by parrots, budgies, macaws, canaries, finches, ducks, geese, and chickens.
People who catch psittacosis from their birds may not show any symptoms for as long as three weeks. Then there may be joint pain, fever, eye irritation, diarrhea, nosebleeds, and white blood cells depletion. This infection sometimes causes pneumonia.
About 1 percent of people who get psittacosis die from the disease, even with modern treatment. A greater percentage of infected birds succumb to the infection.
Q. Do lovebirds really kiss all the time?
A. When lovebirds appear to be kissing, they are actually preening each other.
They reach places on the other bird that the bird cannot reach for itself. Lovebirds do this because they cannot reach the feathers of the head and face by self-preening.
Q. Why do parakeets kiss each other?
When you see two parakeets kiss, you can be sure that they at least tolerate each other. They may not like each other, but kissing means, they are not enemies.
Kissing in parakeets is more common between a male and a female, or between two males. Two female parakeets in the same cage are usually rivals.
Parakeets may also do a lot of kissing when you introduce a new bird into the cage.
Kissing is a way for the bird or birds you already have in the cage to get to know the new bird. Kissing goes on for a week or two, and then becomes less frequent.
An older parakeet kissing a young parakeet may actually be feeding it. Parakeets, like many other kinds of birds, feed their young by regurgitating “milk” from their crop into the waiting bird’s mouth.
Kissing can also be part of fighting. You can distinguish this kind of kissing from affectionate kissing by observing the tail feathers.
When two parakeets “kiss” as part of a fight, they will shake their tail feathers.
Q. How do birds choose their kissing partners, their mates?
A. Birds seem to have an instinct for choosing the best mate.
The mating rituals display strength, agility, and foraging skills. Color and pheromones are also involved.
Q. Why do some birds mate for life?
A. Scientists have observed that larger birds, and birds that have longer lifespans, tend to mate for life.
Mating for life helps them save time at the beginning of every breeding season by not having to look for a new mate.
Birds that are mated for life are more protective of each other and their young.
And when food is scarce, not having to look for a mate saves energy and increases each individual bird’s chances of survival.
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