America's Bird Is Woven into Our Lives and Culture

By Ann Hingas
From the Hoosier Times, 3/18/01

No matter where you grew up, if it was in North America, chances are good that the very first bird nest, the first wild bird egg and the first fledgling bird you were able to identify belonged to an American Robin.

That’s because this largest member of the thrush family has literally woven its success as a species into the fabric of human culture. Robins nest in our backyards, on our house gutters, under our porches. And in our vast areas of suburban lawns and ornamental trees, the robin finds its preferred habitat. As a result, the species has expanded its population as the human landscape has expanded.

So familiar is the robin that we have written songs and stories featuring it. Who could forget Rockin’ Robin, or When The Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobin’ Along, and Robin Red-Breast? We name children after it -- Robin Roberts being one favorite that comes to mind. And, the saying "The early bird gets the worm" always brings a robin into my mind.

The American Robin is commonly seen and is widespread in suburbs, parks, moist woodlands, swamps, gardens, hedges, forest edges, lawns, pastures, and orchards.

Irrigation and the planting of trees and lawns in the Great Plains and in the arid southwestern U.S. is cited by most authorities as the primary reasons robins have expanded their range into formerly inhospitable regions to the south. Other human-provided habitat has let them expand farther to the north.

"Note the influence of metropolitan areas such as Minneapolis, St. Paul, Madison and Detroit, on American Robin distributions. The ornamental fruit trees (e.g. hawthorns, mountain ash, etc) planted in those cities provide vast amounts of food for over-wintering American Robins," says a Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology article on the species.

You know what a robin looks like. That brick-red breast is easy to spot under its darker back and head. Its back is grayish to black with a darker tail over white undertail coverts. The American Robin has an incomplete white eye ring. If you have a good eye and watch a lot of them, you may be able to tell that the only apparent difference between a male and a female robin is that the female’s feathers, especially on its back and tail, are a bit paler. Young robins have speckled or mottled breasts. Adult robins in the eastern U.S. have small white tips on the outer edges of the tail.

Robins have a monogamous mating system and produce two to three broods a year. Robin courtship consists of male chasing female. Once he has the object of his affections isolated, the male struts around her, wings shaking, tail spread and throat puffed out until she accepts or rejects him.

The female builds a fairly large and somewhat untidy-looking nest with the male’s help. As untidy as the foundation looks, the nest itself is usually a finely formed cup lined with fine grasses. She will lay between three and seven pale blue eggs. The female incubates the eggs which hatch in 12 to 14 days. Both sexes tend the young which "fledge" or leave the nest after 14 to 16 days.

One interesting robin behavior noted in most reference books is that young from the year’s first brood often roost at night with the adult male while the adult female is starting to work on brood number two. The male becomes the fledglings’ primary care giver while the female incubates the second brood.

Both sexes aggressively defend the nest. One source calls them "belligerent" around the nest. Because of this, robin nests are seldom victimized by the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird. Adult robins eat earthworms, snails and a lot of fruit and berries. Young are fed a high protein insect diet.

"These guys don't pay much attention to the feeders, but they love it when you start breaking ground for planting and stir up all the earthworms," says Janet Slivoski at "Backyard Birding".

Experiments have shown that robins hunt by sight, not sound. You have probably seen a robin hunting earthworms in a yard at least once in your life. Sometimes, a hunting robin will thump the ground with a foot to stimulate movement of its quarry, then hop to grab it when it reveals itself. A hunting robin can look very sassy, tensing its 10-inch body and stretching almost onto its toes, the feathers atop its head raised as an apparent signal of aggressive alertness. A hunting robin is a formidable predator.

As close as the robin lives with humans, it is no surprise that there have been a couple of unfortunate chapters in the history of this association. In the days before song birds were protected by federal law, robins were widely hunted for food. This was especially the case in the South where gunners could blast into enormous flocks of wintering birds. Robins were said to be "fat and juicy" table fare.

Later, robins were among the species hit hard by widespread use of DDT. Poisoned robins were a common sight in the 1950s, and their songs were among those missed in the "Silent Spring" of Rachael Carson. DDT caused reproductive failure in robins, just as it did in many other birds.

The species has rebounded from those days and now ranges all the way from the Bering Straight all the way to Central America. After breeding season, robins form large flocks and range over wide areas foraging for food. They are typically pushed south by ice and snow, but may winter in northern cities and suburbs where there are enough fruit-bearing trees to support them. Some robins end up in Guatemala, and some may never get farther than the Ohio River Valley.

No doubt the most noticeable thing about the American Robin in spring is its song. It isn’t as complex as the haunting harmonic melody produced by its close relative, the Wood Thrush, but it is familiar and loud. American Robins begin their songs at daylight or slightly before, especially if there is a full moon. One description of the robin’s song is: cheerily, cheer-up, cheer-up.

This favorite backyard visitor’s scientific name is Turdus migratorius. Other Turdidae family members include the Eastern Bluebird and all the "brown" thrushes—Wood Thrush, Veery, Hermit Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, and Gray-cheeked Thrush. Another relative, the Varied Thrush of the northwest, is a casual visitor in the eastern U.S. Rarer yet at this latitude is the Northern Wheatear which is a ground bird of the arctic.

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