Yesterday I was standing on my little deck, watching the Northern Cardinal that was singing in the Crepe Myrtle behind my place. I had a nice view of him doing his ‘purty purty purty’ song, but a flash of movement below caught my eye. Down on the ground were two American Robins- a male and a female. They were eyeing each other quite distinctly and occasionally they would make flights at the other. Both the male and the female instigated these not-quite-chases. One would make a low flight across the ground to the other and open the wings and change direction at the last instant. I watched them repeat this behavior several times. The male eventually ran (not flew) across the ground and chased the female on foot. Finally, both birds took flight and the female flew up to a neighbor’s roof-top while the male stayed below.
Now, to add complication to the situation, throughout this little dance, another male was sitting up on the garage while the whole activity took place (over 5 or so minutes). When the female flew to the neighbor’s roof, he followed her and landed nearby with his tail tipped up into the air. Those two subsequently moved down the other side of the house and out of my view, while the first male remained down below.
“Hmm,” I thought to myself, “Sure looks like some odd courtship dance to me.” To follow up on the courtship idea, I decided to see what I could track down about these birds and here, I hit a snag. The American Robin is a completely common bird. I’ve found information on food preferences, nesting times, incubation patterns, fledging dates and weights, singing and all sorts of things. What I haven’t been able to track down, however, are actual patterns of courtship. It seems that people really don’t know much about what they do when they make their mate choices.
A 1955 paper contains the following quote, “In the robin, the courtship and method of pair-formation does not appear to be conspicuous, and no definitive description can be given. An examination of the literature indicates that the Turdidae have been somewhat of a problem in this respect, no detailed and analyzed reports being available.”
Dr. Young doesn’t add to the information about courtship. He skips right ahead to nest-building. The fascinating part is that after spending awhile searching over the past couple of days, I haven’t really had much success tracking anything else down, either. So here’s where we’ve got work to do. Watch those robins like hawks. Well, like hawks, but without the drooling. We need to rack up some observations on their courtship. I don’t want to see things about them building nests or laying eggs. I want to know what they do BEFORE that. You know, it’s American Robin dating season. What lines do they use? What sort of dance moves do they learn?
Call in sick, if you must, but help me figure out what’s going on.