State bird of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin, the American robin (Turdus migratorius) is a member of the thrush family. For centuries, people on both sides of the Atlantic have applied the name “robin” to bird species whose only common denominator was a reddish-orange breast. Early American colonists encountering the red-breasted thrush of the New World were reminded of the European robin (Erithacus rubecula), and so the name stuck. In Europe, the bird was originally called the “redbreast” or “Robin redbreast,” with the name eventually being shortened to just “robin”.
At about 10 inches long, adult robins are considerably larger than many other songbirds, with round bodies and relatively long legs and tails. The robin has a dark gray or brown back and brick red breast, with a yellow bill and a bit of white partially ringing each eye. You can distinguish between the sexes by noting the depth of the bird’s color -- the male’s head and tail are black, where the female's are gray. Female robins bear a more muted coloring overall. Juveniles look much like their parents except for a spotted breast and more stubby tail.
Habitat and Migration
Although many people associate robins with parks and suburban areas, this bird can be found almost everywhere throughout North America, even in wilder areas. Like most other thrushes, robins migrate south each fall to warmer climes, then return to the north in the spring to build nests and raise young. Males fly north a few days earlier than the females to scout out a territory. Robins frequently return to the same territory year after year, and may even come back to the same nest.
Robins are well known for their appetite for worms. After a rain, they’re often seen engaged in what looks like a tug-of-war as they pull their prey from the softened earth with just the right amount of force. A robin's classic hunting behavior is to run quickly across a lawn, then suddenly stop in an upright, alert stance; it will occasionally tilt its head to better see a worm before pouncing. Besides earthworms, robins eat beetles, spiders, caterpillars, flies, moths and mosquitoes. Fruits become a more important food source for robins during the winter months. These include crabapples, mulberries, cherries, plums, hawthorns, dogwood, sumac, viburnum, holly, hackberry and blackberries and raspberries.
When threatened, robins make a loud barking sound while fluffing up their feathers. Their most common predators include cats, crows and hawks. Squirrels, raccoons, snakes and blue jays all present a danger to the unhatched eggs. Robin parents will protect their young by dive-bombing any potential enemy.
Robins are among the first bird species to lay eggs in the spring. The female weaves a nest of twigs in a tree or bush. She lines the nest with wet mud, pressing her body up to the sides to form a cup which she then pads with soft grass. When building a nest early in the season, a robin pair will usually choose an evergreen for extra weather protection. Subsequently, they may build on a horizontal human-made structure like a ledge or railing. In general, robins seem comfortable feeding and nesting in proximity to people. Putting up a plank or shelf in a visible but sheltered spot may help lure a nest-building pair, allowing you to enjoy the spectacle. In his book "The American Robin," Roland H. Wauer recounts a truly unique robin nesting site, involving a female who built her nest on a locomotive that shuttled between Sioux City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. The mother bird successfully reared her babies by traveling along with the train.
Eggs and Young
Female robins lay between three and five eggs. So distinctive is the pastel blue color of this species’ eggs that certain paints, some Tiffany & Co. jewelry pieces and even an official Crayola crayon all bear the name “robin’s egg blue”. Chicks emerge from their shells after two weeks of incubation. The parents work tirelessly to collect worms and insects to feed the ravenous babies, each of whom, by their last day in the nest, can devour 14 feet of earthworms per day. Even before the young fly from the nest, the female may leave feeding tasks to the male while she prepares a second nest to raise another clutch.
Although both sexes produce calls and warning signals, only the male robin sings. To best distinguish the robin’s melodious voice from among the morning chorus of other birds, listen for them early in the day, since they often begin singing even before dawn breaks. They’re also usually the last bird you’ll hear at dusk. The robin warbles the same happy phrase over and over, which many people think sounds like: “Cheer-up! Cheer-up! Cheer-i-oh! Cheer-up! Cheer-up!” You can hear this “dawn song” and other robin vocalizations at the American Robin website.
Attracting Robins to Your Property
A stretch of green grass is all that’s needed to attract robins. In particular, pesticide- and herbicide-free gardening and lawn care practices create a healthy environment and worm hunting grounds for robins. A rich garden mulch not only benefits your flowers or vegetables, it also invites lots of wrigglers. These in turn provide a bountiful source of food for the birds. Robins also love to splash in water, so you're bound to have visitors if you maintain a shallow bird bath, fountain or simply a puddle.
Although they do not eat seeds, robins may visit a feeder that contains fruit such as apple chunks, grapes, or raisins. The ideal robin habitat contains a lush, mown lawn surrounded by small trees and shrubs interspersed with larger trees and evergreens (a perfect description of many people’s yards). Such surroundings offer these birds food and nesting sites as well as safe cover.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - The Robin
The American Robin by Roland H. Wauer; University of Texas, 1999
Birdscaping Your Garden by George Adama; Rodale Press, 1994
America's Favorite Backyard Birds by Kit and George Harrison; Fireside, 1983
Photo Credits: Images courtesy of BirdFiles