Get out of my yard, you pesky kids!

And so it’s begun.  A few nice warm days around here and the bird activity changes really dramatically.  I was running through the neighborhood this morning and there was quite a ruckus happening in the yards of a few people.  I watched a pair of male Northern Cardinals chasing each other through trees and bushes, all the while calling at each other.  I did see one female hanging out off to the side, but she really stayed out of the altercation.  These males went around the front yard of this house for several minutes, before one of them flew across the street.  On landing in a tree in that yard, he was promptly attacked by another male who flew out of the bushes.  This fight didn’t last long at all.  The one who came out of the bushes was a much brighter male (I’ll come back to the color part in another post), and drove the other one away quickly.  The escaping male once again flew into another yard where it was attacked by a fourth male.

Each of the males who was protecting a yard remained visible while that poor little male moved down the street.  I was actually enjoying these little battles, but it got me wondering about a couple of things.  Firstly, I was sort of amazed that there were so many established males in that little stretch of street.  Apparently, cardinal territory size is quite variable.  Territories with a lot of shrub cover tend to be smaller than those with mainly trees.  These yards definitely had a lot of landscaping and so may actually have favored smaller territory sizes.

Conner, R.N.; M.E. Anderson, and J.G. Dickson.  1986.  Relationships among territory size, habitat, song, and nesting success of Northern Cardinals.  Auk 103:  23-31.

Now, given that I was actually out running, I was willing to stop and watch these birds for a little bit, but I did lose track of the male who kept getting chased away and finally got back to running.  It did make me wonder, though.  At the first yard, was that male actually trying to establish himself on a territory or was he trying something else?  In lots of animals, there are many different sorts of mating tactics (we call them alternative mating strategies).  I arrived when the fight was already in progress.  What is that male was actually trying to sneak in a little tryst with that female?  In many species, young males who are unable to acquire or defend territories on their own become floaters.  This strategy means that they move around, between and (furtively) within the territories of other males.  Sometimes these males get secret matings with females.  Sometimes, this experience may actually help them learn the skills and the area better so that they can defend better quality territories in future years.

Zack, S. and B.J. Stutchbury.  1992.  Delayed breeding in avian social systems:  The role of territorial quality and “floater” tactics.  Behaviour 123:  194-219.

If that’s what he was doing, he was certainly getting in some good practice today.  I expect great things from that bird in the future.

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About thomasbiology

I'm an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens University of Charlotte with a background in animal behavior with an emphasis in bird song. I've got two secret goals with this blog (well, since I'm sharing them, they're not so secret): 1. To encourage people to look at the natural world around them- not just as a hiking destination, but to notice all the little things moving around them all the time; and 2. To show some of the science that relates to these little things moving around. There's some really fascinating research out there that so few people get to see.
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