Male birds-of-paradise rehearse and refine their mating dance through their lives. Bowerbirds clear the forest floor and prepare soft beds, even tossing in a shiny bauble or two to keep the object of their affection amused. Out in the piscine kingdom, the white-spotted pufferfish makes rangoli in the sand. The males in the animal kingdom make elaborate shows of beauty and elegance, colour and sound, and, most importantly, housekeeping skills, to attract a mate.

This makes me wonder how the human male gets away with so little. I could quote relevant passages by Simone de Beauvoir but I think you should read The Second Sex for yourself for her not-so-resigned views on how we arrived at this situation.

Every fortnight in Lounge, our food columnist Samar Halarnkar gives hope to the women of the world. But he is an exception even though “good cook" is a tag most young urban men would like to be identified with these days. I am surrounded by men who claim they cook—and really fancy stuff, pizza from scratch and Danish roast beef—but few of them would survive an hour in the kitchen without a retinue of helpers to chop, pound, knead, roll before they come in for the final flourish.

I was reminded of this while watching the delightful new Netflix documentary Dancing With The Birds, which chronicles the mating rituals of the avian species. Produced by the same team that made Our Planet, the 51-minute film comes to us with wry and humorous narration by the English actor, comedian and author Stephen Fry. Not all the feathered male protagonists are ultimately successful in their endeavours, but it’s hard for the viewer not to fall in love.

The film travels around the world, in sections with titles like “The Swinger," “The Pole Dancers" and “The Artists" to signify the different techniques birds from varied geographies use to attract mates—beginning from the jungles of New Guinea, where we meet the King of Saxony bird-of-paradise.

“Looking good is only half the story," says Fry. “To seal the deal he must get creative and dazzle her with a performance that really catches the eye. It’s not exactly Swan Lake but it works."

You get involved with the conquests; the birds have nicknames. The twelve-wired bird-of-paradise (named so because of the long, wiry feathers that stick out from a bright yellow rear-end), for instance, is “TW". It picks and chisels a perfect treetop, and then…pole-dances. The twelve-wired birds-of-paradise are the kinkiest birds in the rainforest: Fry explains that “female twelve-wires like to be flicked across the face by a male’s tail."

There are some overlaps with the human male. There’s competitiveness and jealousy. One impressive specimen, the tiny MacGregor’s bowerbird, with a striking orange-yellow crest, can spend as long as a year building an elaborate, metre-tall tower of sticks, only to have it sabotaged by a rival. Our hero also entertains his female guests by mimicking sounds like a dog’s bark and even children playing!

There’s something to be said for the lance-tailed manakins of South and Central America. The manakin dates in pairs; a real wingman of a bird. Set to 1970s funk music, this section of the film follows a pair that has been wooing the ladies together for five years. I was also somewhat interested in the Carola’s parotia from New Guinea, given its determination to clean its court of every errant leaf. Female Carolas don’t visit messy display courts.

Mister Flame (pictured) is a flame bowerbird that remains a favourite because he’s a real hard worker. He makes the bower, finds a shiny blue bead and then proceeds to do a dance while holding this bead in his mouth. The colour aesthetics are formidable—Fry informs audiences that the red and yellow flame bowerbird is one of the brightest things in the jungle.

Set to whimsical violin music, he does an ambitious dance called the Matador, which made me very nervous about potential bird sprains. He fails twice. The humiliation is underlined by the indifference of the female bird. He finally gets it right the third time. And for all of this, unlike the lucky human male, the happily ever after lasts mere minutes.

Close