Distraction Displays Of Backyard Robins

I heard on the radio last week that most birds spend a few days out of the nest before they are able to fly. They are particularly vulnerable in this period, obviously, as they can only hop away from predators, and aren’t strong enough to fly more than a couple of feet.

I saw this with my own eyes the other day. I had just let my dog Jessie out of our back door so that he could take care of his morning business, when Jessie (and I) spotted a couple of birds.

Now Jessie is not a great threat to local wildlife (thankfully) because he begins to bark immediately upon seeing potential prey (unlike those stealthy cats). So, although we’ve got lots of rabbits in the neighbourhood, and some squirrels (and unfortunately a fair number of skunks, too), Jessie has never been a big bother to our neighbourhood animals. (At our last home there were many squirrels in our yard, and Jessie would chase them daily. But they would run on the ground until they reached a tree, and then scramble up the back side of the tree. Jessie would invariably run right past the tree to the fence, and then look up at the fence, wondering where the squirrel had disappeared! He never learned in the four years we were there, getting fooled every single time.)

Upon seeing the two birds, Jessie started barking and took off after them. One turned out to be a fledgling robin, who hopped and flapped his way to some ground cover by the side fence. The other was the little robin’s parent, who now flew up and landed on the ground a few metres away. Jessie followed the baby bird and started to sniff after it.

The parent robin now began to chirp wildly, as if it were waving its arms around and yelling, “Look at me! I’m right here! Over here, look at me!” I immediately began calling Jessie to come over, and he did come quickly, before he had located the fledgling. He noticed the calling bird, and gave chase. The adult robin hopped away, in the direction opposite to the where the fledgling had found safety, and then flew up into a tree when Jessie got close. All the while, the adult was chirping like crazy, in a constant reminder to Jessie that the real action was over here, and to forget about the low plants by the side fence entirely. And it worked very well, as Jessie took care of his business, and then came back into the house for a morning snack, never bothering with the fledgling again.

Birds use a number of different distraction displays to protect their young, and this one was quite effective, as well as being fascinating to watch.

The following day, I got a personal repeat performance in my back yard. I was walking along a sidewalk when an adult robin again flew off to a nearby tree, chattering wildly. As I continued walking, I passed a low tree with a baby robin perched on it, making itself as still and small as possible. I passed by it without pausing, and the parent bird kept up the noise, trying to lead me away from baby.

This was all very instructive to me. Last week I was mowing the lawn, and when I was moving the mower from the front yard to the back yard, I noticed a nearby robin making a big fuss in a nearby tree. I looked around and could not find a nest or anything else of interest, so I was puzzled by what the commotion was about. Now I understand: The robin was trying to distract me from its young. And very successfully too, because I didn’t spot anything of interest that time!

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 22 January 2021.)