Saturday, April 19, 2008

Guido's Got A Girlfriend! - Or Not

Guido, our resident robin, may have a girlfriend -- or not.

A week or so ago we saw him hanging out with another slightly smaller, slightly duller colored, red-breasted thrush. In our neck of the woods it apparently isn't that easy to distinguish male from female robins. Unlike other birds, cardinals e.g. where the female is brown and the male is, well, cardinal -- gender recognition in robins is based on subtle degrees of difference.

Within a day or two Mars noticed the two of them building a nest in our neighbors' Star Magnolia. The tree was still budding at the time so visibility was not in any way obstructed and the roost was being constructed at a surprisingly (to us) low altitude of about four feet. Robins live for as long as twelve years averaging two clutches of eggs per annum and as a result may build more than twenty nests -- so hopefully Guido knows what he's doing. Unless of course this is his first one.

Should this be his initial homebuilding project I found the following nest-building directions on the web, although I have not figured out how to communicate them to him.

"1. Find a suitable building site

* The site should be protected from sun, wind and rain. It can be anywhere from ground to treetop in height; the site must be on something sturdy enough to anchor the nest securely in place. You don't want your nest to fall off!
* Your nest should also be very close to a good feeding spot so you can easily find worms while keeping an eye on it, and it shouldn't be too far from water.
* Choose a spot that is hard for predators to see. Remember, you and your eggs and babies will be sitting here for the next 5 weeks, so be careful to pick a spot that's safe, cool, and comfortable.

2. Gather materials

* Grass fibers: Collect about 350 dead grasses and twigs that are about 6 inches long. (The pile should weigh about 135 grams.)
* Soft mud: After a soaking rain, collect mouthfuls of mud in your beak and travel back and forth to your nest site a few hundred times.
(If you happen to be a person rather than a robin, you might substitute your hands for a beak to collect the mud, but don't forget that it takes a pair of robins hundreds of visits to build the nest!)

3. Build!

* Weave the grasses together, cementing them to each other and to the supporting branch or windowsill with mud.
* Next, use your tummy to shape the nest into a perfect baby cradle.
* Finally, line the inside with the softest grasses and hairs you can find so the eggs will stay warm and not get pierced by any twigs or sharp grass edges. The nest must be tight and snug enough to cradle the eggs and hold in your warmth, but large enough to hold four or even five BIG nestlings."

Still, it was more the elevation of the aerie rather than the structural integrity that concerned us. According to Bird Studies Canada the nest height for Robins ranges from "ground level (not common) to 21m, but usually between 1.4 and 3m." Hopefully Guido, a good "red breasted American" is not bewildered by these bizarre foreign measurement standards, although it looks to us as if he may be confusing his metric numbers with real ones.

The day after the nest was being worked on I noticed Guido hanging out by himself in our front yard. And the next day too. I am not the best reader of body language but I would say that his previously patient, confident demeanor had been replaced by a slump-shouldered, pacing back-and-forth attitude. Perhaps his perspective partner was hoping for something more like a penthouse on Wisteria Lane rather than a first floor flat on Magnolia. Or maybe Guido just didn't make her laugh enough.

Two days ago the Magnolia tree burst into full blossom. Then yesterday I looked out our window and saw her sitting on the nest. Later she was cavorting with Guido under our sunflower seed feeder. Like Mars says, "Flowers always work."

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