Bird of The Week: American Robin
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Turdus migratorius
POPULATION: 380 million
HABITAT: Suburban and agricultural areas, open woodlands
The American Robin is one of North America’s most widespread, familiar, and well-loved songbirds. Although homesick settlers named it after the European Robin because of its reddish-orange breast, the two species are not closely related. The American Robin is a thrush, related to the Wood Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, and Varied Thrush, while the European Robin is an Old World flycatcher.
In late winter, male American Robins begin to sing their cheerful, caroling song (cheerily cheer-up cheerio…), a sure harbinger of springtime for many. The early chorus continues through spring, into summer.
Robin Song as a Reference
Birders often use the robin’s loud, musical song as a reference when learning other bird songs. For example, the Scarlet Tanager’s burry song is often described as “a robin in a hurry, with a sore throat,” while the Rose-breasted Grosbeak’s song is characterized as a sweeter, smoother version of the robin’s — “a robin that’s taken voice lessons.”
The American Robin is especially vocal during the spring and summer. It is one of the first birds to sing in the morning, often beginning well before dawn, and one of the last to be heard at night. In addition, this species has a variety of distinctive calls, including a shrill cheep alarm call and a low tuktuktuk when disturbed.
A Widespread Success
Seven American Robin subspecies are recognized, based on differences in body size and plumage color. Northern populations are short- to medium-distance migrants, and two nonmigratory subspecies are resident in Mexico.
The American Robin has a very large breeding range, encompassing a wide variety of open woods and edge habitats from northern Alaska, across Canada, down through the lower 48 United States, and into mountainous areas of Mexico. It is very scarce in winter in Cuba and the Bahamas and has occurred as a rare vagrant to other parts of the West Indies, as well as Europe.
Migratory populations spend the winter from extreme southern Canada south to central Mexico. Although originally a bird of forest clearings, this species adapted particularly well to the widespread settlement and clearing of forest and grassland that occurred over the last few centuries.
American Robins are social birds, especially during the winter, when they gather in large night roosts of up to 250,000 birds. During short winter days, smaller groups break off to forage for food, rejoining the roost in the evening.
This species has a wide-ranging diet. Robins feed on fruits and berries (especially in fall and winter), earthworms, snails, spiders, and insects such as grubs, caterpillars, and grasshoppers. Most people are familiar with the sight of American Robins hopping busily to and fro on lawns and in other open spaces, pulling up earthworms. Although they mainly glean food from the ground, robins also perch in trees while feeding on fruit and can catch flying insects in midair.
Flexible, Frequent Nesters
This adaptable bird nests in a wide variety of suburban, urban, rural, wooded, and shrubby habitats close to open areas. Breeding begins in early April, and the robin is one of the first songbirds to begin laying eggs each spring. If conditions allow, a robin pair will raise two or three broods per season.
American Robin pairs remain together for that year’s nesting. The female chooses the nest site and builds the cup-shaped nest, making a new one for each clutch of three to four sky-blue eggs. Nests are most often built 5 to 15 feet off the ground in a tree fork, in a densely foliated shrub, or on a window ledge or other sheltered structure.
The American Robin is one of the species that is clearly showing northward shifts in its distribution as a result of global warming. It now occurs and breeds in areas of the Canadian and Alaskan tundra where it did not previously occur.
Conserving a Well-Loved Species
Unlike many other birds, the American Robin seems to have benefited from urbanization and agricultural development. Although its populations are increasing, it remains vulnerable to many of the same factors threatening less adaptable species.
Pesticide poisoning remains an important threat, since American Robins forage on lawns and other open spaces that are often sprayed with toxins. Although DDT has been banned in the United States, other toxic chemicals such as neonicotinoids, chlorpyrifos, and glyphosate (used in the familiar weed-killer Round-Up) are still in use. Pesticides can also affect populations of earthworms, a major food source for this bird.
Since American Robins forage and feed on the ground, they are especially vulnerable to predation by outdoor cats. Collisions with windows, communications towers, and car strikes are other common hazards.
Special note: Historically, this bird has been the marker as the ‘first sign of spring’. We also have a paint color: robin egg blue.
Source: American Bird Conservancy (abcbirds.org)