Growing up in Alaska, I quickly became aware of the seasonal migratory patterns of birds. I knew which birds to expect in the winter and the summer. There were those who were only passing through briefly in the fall and those who stayed all year. After a long, six-month winter, there was one bird whose arrival I always hailed as the crowned king of spring. If you instantly jumped to the happy, melodic trills of Robins, you read my mind. Every year I waited to hear these happy birds’ cheerily cheery cheerily cheery, signaling that winter was over, spring was on its way and we would soon welcome the green of summer. With its brown suit coat, fiery red breast, and expressive black eyebrows, the pert little Robin was always a welcome sight.
Robins are one of the more common birds in North America, so it can be very easy to take these birds for granted. Global estimates for the Robin population hit approximately 310 million. 79 percent of those birds migrate through the U.S. making them recognizable to most. Common species include the Rufous-backed Robin, the Clay-Colored Robin, the European Robin (Robin Red Breast), and the American Robin. Their familiar color, beautiful song, and trusting nature makes Robins a favorite among bird lovers.
Despite their common appearance, Robins are a truly remarkable species, and there is more to Robin Red Breast than meets the eye. Did you know the oldest Robin lived to be over 13 years old, or that they can become intoxicated when eating berries, or that there are Robin species unique to every continent? Below are more interesting facts about our favorite springtime friend.
The Early Bird Gets the Worm
This adage may have been written to describe Robins, whose song is often the first you will hear as the sun rises in the sky. Robins revel in earthworms, and can be found tripping through lawns and scattering leaves in search of their favorite treat. Interestingly enough, they are not only one of the first birds awake, they are also among the last singing at night –giving you the impression of a jovial honeybee, working all day long. If you want to attract robins to your yard, the best way to call them in is with a shovel. That’s right, dig! Robins will be attracted to the tilled earth, which makes it easier for them to hunt up their favorite invertebrates – earthworms.
Robins’ “work ethic” is visible in other areas too. One of the first birds to arrive in spring, Robins and their mate quickly begin building a nest and get started on their first brood. If successful, they can hatch three broods each summer! This may seem like a lot, but its necessary for Robins to reproduce. Of these three broods, only 40 percent generally produce young, 25 percent of those survive to November, and 50 percent of those survive to the following year. Robins are capable of living 14 years, but the average life span is 6 years. Considering these numbers, its awe-inspiring we see so many robins tripping about our backyard.
Robin nests are a treat for anyone who stumbles upon them; a well-formed cup of mud and twigs filled with 3-5 bright blue, speckled eggs, so stunning they earned a color in the Crayola box. The female robin is responsible for nest building. Working from the inside out, she uses the wrist of one wing to press mud and twigs into a bowl-shape. They prefer nesting in wooded or shrubby habitats, but can occasionally be found in surprising places. A friend of mine found a robin nesting on her back porch in the basket of her bike!
Winter Birds Too!
In many states Robins can be seen all year. When I lived in the Midwest, I enjoyed hearing Robins’ song winter, fall, summer, and spring. In these areas, they have developed valuable skills for surviving the cold, foraging for food, eating snow, and building warm nests.
Though Robins in general are considered a portly bird, with a straight back and a potbelly, it’s likely you have seen the amusing photos of an altogether chubby robin, especially in winter. Believe it or not, these photos are not of a bird that over-indulged in their Thanksgiving dinner. It’s actually how Robins keep warm. They puff up their plumage to insulate their bodies and protect themselves from cold in the winter months. So next time you see a puffy robin, think of it as their heavy winter down coat – helping them stay warm in the same way your coats protect you.
Varied Eating Habits
Robins’ diets can be dependent on their location. Robins who live in the city will eat differently than Robins who reside in the woods. In general, their favorite foods seem to be invertebrates and fruit. We’ve already mentioned earthworms, but they also eat a large variety of insects, slugs, and snails. They will sometimes eat seed from a bird feeder, though not as often as other birds. Robins do, however, love fruits especially in the fall and winter when they are plentiful. They frequently recorded eating chokecherries, sumac fruits, mountain ash, honeysuckle, and juniper berries. Similar to other berry eaters like bohemian waxwings, robins who over-indulge in their favorite treat have been known to become slightly intoxicated from fermented berry fruit.
In the wintertime when food is sparser, urban robins are more likely to eat food left out for them by humans. Breads and fatty foods are especially appealing including bacon and pancakes!
Robin Red Breast
As an avid bird lover, it can be very challenging when asked which bird is my favorite. Usually the questioner will receive a list rather than a single bird. The Robin is always at the top of that list. I admire them for their enduring cheerfulness, their heartening song, and their pert mannerisms. Whether they are piercing the quietude of winter, or hailing the coming of spring, little Robin Red Breast, with his brown coat, and red shirt waist, will always be a favorite.