New Kids on the Block: Claiming a Territory
Video and Viewing Guide


A Male Robin's First Summer
Imagine you are a male robin who hatched last April. Now it's March almost your first birthday. You’ve been hanging out with other robins for your whole life. Your brothers and sisters hatched right around the day you hatched. You were always eager to be fed first, but except for trying to beg more insistently than they did, you didn’t squabble or fight with them. When you fledged from your nest, you stayed with your brothers and sisters and father for a few weeks. Each evening, your father led all of you to a big stand of trees where you’d sleep with lots of other robins. When your father got busy with new babies, you remained with your sisters and brothers, and joined other young robins in small flocks. Every night your father — and soon a whole new batch of young robins joined you in the roost (the branch where all of you spent the night).

First Autumn
By fall, you started feeling restless and yearned to fly and fly and fly. Other robins seemed to be feeling the same way. Sometimes you’d see a big flock flying overhead and you’d fly up and join them. You went to lots of places, and got to eat a lot of new things you’d never tasted before. You got used to having a lot of other robins around feeding in the same fruit trees, roosting in the same trees, and moving about in flocks.

Spring: Establishing a First Territory
As the days started getting longer at the end of winter, you started feeling restless again. But now the feeling became more complicated — you suddenly needed to find a territory. But where? For the first time in your life, you didn’t always want other male robins close to you. But how would you send them away?

That’s what was happening to a couple of robins Laura Erickson watched when she was in Nebraska in March. They had separated from the big migratory and feeding flocks and seemed to be interested in establishing a territory for the first time. But the problem was, they picked the same place! They were used to being with lots of robins and weren't quite sure how to make the other male go away.

Video: New Kids on the Block
Watch It Now


Video Viewing Guide
Watch the video of this encounter; view it more than once. See if you can figure out the answers to these questions:

Q1. Are either of the robins looking for food?

An American Robin is about 25 cm (10 inches) in length. Using that as a gauge to answer this: About how far do you estimate these robins stay from each other?

Why do you think the robins finally flew at each other? How long did the battle last? Why do you think they stopped fighting? Why do you think they stayed together after the battle?

(Laura Erickson watched them fly at each other twice before she started making the video, and didn’t know how long they’d been competing like this. After the third robin chased them off, they flew about 20 feet away and started competing all over again.)

Q4. Where did the third robin come from? Laura Erickson thinks that one was older than the other two. Why did she come to this conclusion?

When the third robin flew in, one robin stood its ground for a few seconds. The second robin almost immediately flew off. Why do you think the first robin flew away with the second robin instead of battling the new bird?

What's Next for These Robins?
The first year a bird tries to find a territory, it takes a while and a lot of exploring to find an open territory and then defend it against other young birds. But eventually — probably within a week or two — these two robins will find their own spaces, and will learn to defend them. By next year, they’ll be the experienced birds chasing off a new set of “new kids on the block.”

Try This! Journaling Question

  • Have you ever played basketball one-on-one? When you start playing with someone new, you have to figure out your opponent's strengths and weaknesses. When your opponent moves forward with the ball, you keep up and try to stop him or her. Sometimes one person will dribble and try to set up a play while the other player tries to stop that play.

    How is a game of basketball similar to what these robins were doing? How is it different? What is at stake in a territorial battle between robins? What is at stake in a basketball game?
  • Name three other species of animals that defend a territory. Choose one and list some ways its territorial behaviors are similar to, and different from, those of robins.

National Science Education Standards

  • Scientists develop explanations using observations (evidence) and what they already know about the world.
  • The behavior of individual organisms is influenced by internal cues (such as hunger) and by external cues (such as a change in the environment).
  • Plants and animals have life cycles that include being born, developing into adults, reproducing, and eventually dying.
  • An organism's behavior patterns are related to the nature of that organism's environment, including the kinds and number of other organisms present, the availability of food and resources, and the physical characteristics of the environment.