Jan/Feb 2015For Wildlife Watchers: American Robinby Rob Simbeck, photo by Phillip Jones
The robin is among the most abundant bird species on the continent, with a population estimated at more than three hundred million.
For naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, it was an encounter with a flicker that "made me aware of the world in which we live." For S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife technician Lex Glover, who has also made a life built around his love for the natural world, it was a much more common bird.
"I was in high school," says Glover, "and we had robins nesting just outside the kitchen window in a dogwood tree. I'd sit at the window and watch them, and I remember the parents coming to the nest with mouthfuls of earthworms and just shoving them down the chicks' throats. I thought they were such excellent parents — after feeding them they would just perch at the edge of the nest and watch the young and look around. It was a neat experience and I was bummed that I wasn't there when they fledged. I credit that with helping to get me into birding."
The sheer ubiquity of robins has no doubt inspired many other young people to pay more attention to nature. In fact, as a little boy, I thought the word bird referred exclusively to the orange-breasted creatures that seemed as much a part of our lawn as the grass.
The robin was by far the most common bird where I grew up in Pennsylvania, and it didn't seem possible to scan the yard without seeing its distinctive hop, that cocked-head once-over of the ground, and the earnest tug that meant an unlucky worm was now a meal. Its sturdy nest often sat where I could see it, in one of the bushes at the front of the house or on a low branch of a black cherry or other hardwood. Its song, variations on a musical cheerily, cheer up, was the signature sound of dawn and dusk.
The robin is among the most abundant bird species on the continent, with a population estimated at more than three hundred million. It lives in almost every habitat, from forest to tundra, from Central America to north of the Arctic Circle, from sea level to 12,000 feet. It is, of course, quite at home in human landscapes as well, including yards and parks. It has shown up in Emily Dickinson's poetry, Native American mythology and even on a Canadian two-dollar bill. The robin is the state bird of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin, and as of 1993, its well-known eggshell shade is a Crayola crayon color.
Early American colonists named it after its smaller, orange-breasted European namesake. The American robin is a thrush, part of a group of songbirds that includes bluebirds, veeries, and hermit and wood thrushes, birds that often possess attractive plumage, spotted breasts (particularly in the young) and insectivorous diets. At ten inches long, the robin is the largest of the American thrushes, with a wingspan of fourteen to sixteen inches and an average weight of two-and-a-half to three ounces. That orange breast sets off a black tail, a black head with white around the eyes, a yellow bill, black-and-white-streaked throat, grayish brown back and white undertail. Male colors are bolder than those on the female and, true to form, juvenile robins have spotted breasts.
American Robin - Turdus migratorius ("migrating thrush")
Description: About ten inches long, gray back, black head, bold orange breast.
Range and Habitat: Varied; Alaska to Central America. Nests throughout South Carolina, except on immediate coast.
Mating: Sturdy nest; three to five "robin's-egg blue" eggs; one to three broods.
Viewing Tips: Familiar call. Often spotted in yards. One of the easiest birds to see and hear.
Worms are an obvious favorite in the spring and summer, but caterpillars, grasshoppers, other insects and their grubs form a large part of their diet as well. In the fall and winter, robins will eat more fruit, with chokecherries, juniper berries, hawthorn and dogwood among their favorites.
With autumn comes a southward migration, although some robins can be found wintering in even hostile climates, eating the berries remaining in wooded, densely vegetated areas. According to Glover, with the coming of fall and winter, the population in South Carolina swells, as robins move in from the northern states and Canada, sometimes on their way to Florida and the Gulf States.
"We can have pretty intense flocks of them, scattered through the coastal plain," he says. "When we do Christmas counts, you'll see large numbers of robins either first thing in the morning or the last thing in the evening, often going into bottomland hardwood areas where there is plenty of cover, and maybe cedars and evergreens so they have a place to roost. I have also seen them in plowed fields, with sparrows and blackbirds mixed in with them."
Robins are among the first birds to return to northern breeding grounds in the spring, and are thus one of the season's iconic symbols. They begin courtship soon after their return, with nesting in South Carolina often beginning in April. Males, which generally arrive a week or two before females, sing to attract females, then raise and spread their tails, shake their wings and inflate their throats. Pairs sometimes approach each other with their bills open and touch them together. Males also sing to establish nesting territories, and both sexes will defend breeding territories.
The female chooses the nest site, usually from five to fifteen feet off the ground. Robins have been known to nest in eaves, gutters or other parts of buildings, as well as in trees and shrubs. Nests, built by the females, are typically six to eight inches in diameter and reinforced with mud, with a soft inner lining of grass. The female will lay from three to five light blue eggs and incubate them for about two weeks. Their early nesting, says Glover, means they are susceptible to spring storms, which can damage the nest or subject eggs and young to fatal chilling, if the mother must leave to feed.
The young are featherless, and their eyes remain closed for the first few days. Both parents bring worms, berries and insects many times a day. Crows and blue jays will take young from nests, and eggs and young are also susceptible to squirrels, snakes and other predators. Robins raise "cheep!" alarm calls and fly at perceived threats, including humans. Studies show that only about 40 percent of nests are successful and that just a quarter of young robins from those nests reach a year of age. The young leave the nest in two weeks, but will stay close and beg food from parents, who accommodate them for a time. In another two weeks they are able to sustain flight. Robins typically raise a second brood each season. Cats, rat snakes, hawks, falcons and owls all prey on robins. They are susceptible to parasitic worms and are known carriers of West Nile Virus. Still, this is one species that thrives in close quarters with humans.
Wildlife watchers often get most excited about sightings of the rare and unusual, but experience also teaches us an appreciation for the ordinary. The American robin is quintessentially ordinary, but its quirky presence serves as a quotidian delight, a constant reminder of the riches to be found right at our feet.