Speaking of Nature: The American robin
A male robin glares at me while trying to deliver a meal of earthworms to his waiting offspring. The female (in the foreground) can be differentiated from the male by her gray head.
Two tiny robin chicks in their nest. These chicks can’t be more than a couple days old. Note the huge eyes under the skin where the lids are not ready to open yet.
Bill Danielson photo
A fledgling robin sits in a tree waiting for something to eat. Notice the stubby little tail and the speckled breast feather
Whether it’s dawn, or dusk, there is always one prominent song in the world of birds; that of the American robin (Turdus migratorius). Bright and clear, this song carries quite some distance and brings with it the positive, hopeful, emphatic mood of the songster himself. The world just wouldn’t be the same without the song of the robin, but I am always surprised by how easily this wonderful bird seems to slip into the background, unnoticed by almost everyone.
This is almost certainly the product of two simple things: robins are found almost everywhere and they live their lives out in the open. They are among the first birds that little children learn to identify and their ubiquitous presence allows one to begin to stop seeing them. This is a shame, however, because the lives of these birds are as rich and dramatic as the songs of the males.
First, let us dispense with the bird’s scientific name as it will definitely be an important part of the bird’s general story. The genus name “Turdus” is an unaltered Latin word that means “thrush.” This is perfectly reasonable as robins are, in fact, thrushes. It even turns out that the entire thrush Family is known as “Turdidae,” so the members of the “Turdus” genus are the prototypical thrushes.
Other well-known birds in this family would be the eastern bluebird, the wood thrush, the hermit thrush and the veery (none of which belong to the Turdus genus, however). To find other members of the same genus, you have to travel far afield from the borders of the U.S., to places like Asia and South America. I was able to track down seven other species in this genus and they all had nearly identical body shapes, differing only in the colors of their costumes.
The species name “migratorius” is a compound word formed from the Latin words “migrator,” meaning a migrant or wanderer, and the suffix “-orius,” which means “belonging to.” Put all of the pieces together and you get a translation of something like, “the wandering thrush,” which I find to be quite romantic and appealing. These birds travel far and see many things in their lives.
But what might catch you by surprise is the fact that this bird, known for its migratory habits, doesn’t always migrate far. In fact, there are many local places where large concentrations of robins can be found roosting throughout the winter, which has always amazed me. How can a bird that represents summer, a bird that feasts on earthworms and berries, manage to stay alive in the bitter cold of the winter? You could set up a digital projector and show me all of the research, but on a gut level it just doesn’t seem possible. These truly are impressive birds.
The singing doesn’t start until spring, however. Robins may be present in the winter, but their chatter is purely for the sake of keeping in contact with one another. A study in perturbed excitement, the call notes and other vocalizations are impossible to describe in words, save for one. There is a single note to one of their calls that always sounded like they were saying “Butch!” This is, no doubt, why the first robin I ever took care of as a kid ended up being called Butch.
Baby robins are among the easiest to find by children and pets because robins seem so willing to nest in close proximity to people. A hedge or a bush will be quite acceptable. Sometimes even a rafter in a covered porch will be selected. A few years ago, there was one couple that set up shop in a shrubbery right next to my swimming pool and if I was very quiet and very still, I could watch the parents come and go with food for their chicks.
Robin nests are, in a word, perfect. Imagine a small ceramic bowl and you’ve got the general shape of the nest. Now substitute dried mulch for fired clay and grass for glaze and you have a robin nest. About the right size to accommodate a closed fist, the nest of an American robin is a sturdy structure that can last many months after its builders have abandoned it, serving as nice winter quarters for mice.
The female robin builds the nest with some help from her mate and the human-robin relationship starts even at this stage of the robin’s life. Robins love searching for worms in the lawns that we humans favor and they will even utilize the lawn clippings in their nests. Humans seem to make the world a nicer place for robins and the robins have definitely taken advantage of it.
Once the nest is complete, the female will lay an egg per day until she has a clutch of three to seven eggs. The nests that I have seen generally contain three to four eggs, but there is always a chance for a high number. The problem is that seven chicks can quickly outgrow the holding capacity of their nest, which means that they either have to toddle out onto a branch, or they will fall to the ground. These little babies that have taken a spill are the ones easily found by children and cats.
Once the female has a complete clutch, she will incubate the eggs for two weeks. The male is kept busy defending his territory and finding food to bring back to the female. After the eggs hatch, the female has another week of high-maintenance brooding to look forward to. As the chicks grow, so do their appetites. Eventually, the chicks are large enough to keep themselves warm and the female will have to join in the effort to keep them fed.
The chicks will go from blind-and-naked helplessness to feathered and bright-eyed optimists in only two weeks and then it’s time for their first forays out into the world. There will be much tumbling and bumbling about at first; the fledglings have wing feathers, but their tails are not yet fully grown. I have taken a hand in raising more robins than I can count and these little toddlers are hilarious. They are also voracious eaters and as their flying skills improve, they can become loud, insistent pests. Pests that you cannot help but love, however.
A robin that hatches in the middle of June and fledges at the beginning of July will have about three months to “get it together” until that old migratory instinct will start to whisper in the back of its mind. “Time to go” the voice will say and the bird will eventually begin the wandering for which it is named.
If a young robin were to go to the “end of the line,” it would find itself somewhere down near the Mexico-Guatemala border, but adult robins will overwinter just about anywhere. The singing, which started on April 1 at my house, will die down sometime in September and the robins will shift gears into winter mode.
Worms and insects will be more and more difficult to find with the shortening days and cooling temperatures and the robins will gradually shift to a diet of berries and other fruits. On Jan. 3 of this year, I noted “robins in the crabapple tree” in my journal. The temperature was only 7 degrees and there was a lot of snow on the ground, but they were making it.
But why wait until winter to be amazed by robins? This is their glorious time of year and a quiet morning on the porch with the paper and a cup of coffee can yield wonderful sightings of this bird. Your yard is, after all, tailor made for robins, so you might as well enjoy watching them for a while.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com