Walking near the central drill field on campus earlier this week, I happened upon the beginning of a mid-afternoon performance to celebrate the arrival of spring. The American Robin Ballet Company had taken their places on the lawn, dark taupe cloaks and carmine waistcoats vivid against the peridot-and-buff turf. They appeared frozen in place, waiting for the orchestra’s opening chords. Then all at once they began to move, not in sync but each using the same choreography.
Step… step… step… then a brief, brisk run… plié… relevé. Repeat.
Adagio (step… step… step)… allegro (step,step,step)… plié… relevé. Repeat.
Actually, if you think about it, it’s natural to see robins and other songbirds as dancers. For one thing, they are almost always on at least demi pointe—what you and I might call being on our tippy-toes. That’s because what we think of as the bird’s foot is actually only toes, and what we might initially think of as the knee is actually the ankle.
But for the corps de ballet in this show, function is as important as form. It may look like a dance but in fact it’s a hunt… or a very stylish way to shop for groceries. Take your pick.
The appearance of robins is considered by many to signal the arrival of spring; however, in some parts of North America robins are year-round residents. In winter they may form enormous nighttime roosts of over a hundred thousand individual birds. There is strength—and warmth—in numbers.
In spring and summer, after pairs have formed for pas de deux, males and females participate in the care and feeding of their offspring. However, females sleep on the nest, warming eggs or nestlings, while the males continue to gather each evening to sleep at the roost. As young robins gain their independence, they leave the nest and join the males at night.
Robins are territorial, but unlike many birds, males are more protective of their mate and nest site than of feeding grounds, which often overlap. So while cardinals and even hummingbirds are known for aggressive intraspecies defense of food resources, it’s not unusual to see groups of red-breasted dancers on a single grassy stage, even at the height of breeding season.
When a robin stops suddenly, stands stock still, cocks its head to one side, dips slightly, then rises for another series of steps, the audience may assume the bird is listening intently. But ornithologists believe robins are actually looking for signs of digging that reveal the location of a worm. They—the birds, not the ornithologists (well, maybe some of the ornithologists)—consume other invertebrates, such as snails and insects, and a wide variety of wild fruits. Exactly the kind of high-protein, high-fiber, low-fat diet ballerinas and danseurs need to remain light on their feet. I could almost hear Martha Graham…
“Places everyone… and five, six, seven, eight… GRAND JETÉ!“
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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons License: Mr.TinDC; Chesapeake Bay Program, and Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren. The bird skeleton diagram is from Illustrations of Zoology by W Ramsay Smith and J S Newell (1889, public domain).