Temporal shifts in the pair-bond dynamics of New Zealand robins (Petroica australis)

Summary

Winter is a challenging time for temperate insectivorous songbirds, due to colder temperatures, reduced prey activity and shorter diurnal foraging times. For species that are non-migratory, territorial and monogamous, winter conditions may result in within-pair competition. However, little is known about how monogamous pairs coexist on their winter territories.

We investigated temporal patterns in male–female interactions of the New Zealand robin (Petroica australis) to better understand mechanisms of coexistence during winter. Previous work has shown that male robins are physically dominant over females and maintain priority access to food year-round. We quantified female behaviour throughout the 2008 non-breeding season to better understand how females coexist with physically dominant males on winter territories. Results showed that pairs rarely forage in close proximity in autumn and winter, suggesting females avoid males at this time of year. Males and females begin to spend more time foraging together as winter turns to spring. During this winter–spring transitional period, females steal large amounts of food hoarded by males. These results indicate that male and female New Zealand robins use different behavioural mechanisms to coexist on their winter territories. While males are dominant physically, females show a seasonally variable strategy where they avoid males in autumn and winter, and then steal male-made caches from early spring until the onset of inter-pair cooperation and the breeding season.