Most important information about the American Robin birds you need to know 

Most important information about the American Robin birds you need to know 

 How long do robins live?

  1. A. Most robins die their first year. But the lifespan goes up dramatically for the ones that survive that critical time because they’ve learned so many important life skills. Of those that survive their first year, most wild robins live to be about 5 or 6. As of February 2001, the longest-living banded wild robin ever recorded had survived 13 years and 11 months, according to the Bird Banding Laboratory at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. In captivity, robins have survived longer than 17 years.
  2. Do robins mate for life?
    A. 
    No, robins do not mate for life. Pairs usually remain together during an entire breeding season, which can involve two or three nestlings. However, in spring, sometimes a male and female who mated the previous year will both return to the same territory and end up together for another year. This happens most frequently when they were successful raising babies the previous year.
  3. How long do robins stay in the egg? (egg stage)
    A.About 12-14 days after the last egg was laid. (Robins lay one egg per day, for a total of 5-6 eggs in a clutch.)
  4. How long do robin babies stay in the nest (nestling stage)? 
    A.Baby robins jump from their nest when they are about 13 days old (but the range is 9 – 16 days old).
  5. When do young robins learn to fly? (fledgling stage)
    A. 
    After leaving the nest (fledging), it takes another 10-15 days for babies to become strong fliers and independent birds.
  6. How long does it take a robin to go from egg to independence?
  7. Here is a summary:
Life Cycle Stage # Days
Egg 12 – 14
Nestling 9 – 16
Fledgling 10 – 15
Total 31 – 45
  1. How old are robins when they mate?
    A.Almost one year old. Robins are mature adults and ready to breed in the spring that follows the spring or summer they were born.

 

Nests  
Q. Can I move and relocate a robin’s nest? 
A. Unfortunately, no. If you move a robin’s nest the parents will most likely abandon the nest, eggs, and young. Nest-site fidelity grows during the nesting season. The more time and energy the birds invest in the nest, the less likely they are to abandon it when disturbed. However, actually moving the nest is not merely a disturbance—it makes the entire nest environment different. The birds’ fidelity is to the whole nest setting

Q. After the baby robins leave the nest, should I leave it for her to use again, or take it down?
A. While robins might repair or build on top of a previous nest, most of them build a new nest. This is best for many reasons. A used nest is a mess, stretched out and often home to insects or parasites and possibly poop. Take the nest down and the site will be ready for the next Robin.

Q. Will the male robin take over the nest if the mother cannot?
A. If the female was killed, the eggs are doomed. The male doesn’t have a brood patch and doesn’t know how to brood eggs. If it was the male who died, the female might continue to incubate, but may just give the nest up for lost because the chances of bringing off more than one or two nestlings are very slight with just her to feed them. Also, the female starts focusing on a new batch of eggs after the young fledge, so the father is quite essential for the ‘finishing school’ lessons on surviving. 

Q. Is it common for a robin to build more than one nest at a time?
A. This is a question we hadn’t been asked before, so we wrote to Len Eiserer, the author of The American Robin: A Backyard Institution. Len answered,

Building multiple nests simultaneously happens every now and again with robins. One started 26 different nests on roof rafters of a garage under construction; another built 8 on successive steps of a fire escape. Support from underneath is the primary site selection factor for the female robin — it’s more important than concealment. Because some human structures provide repetitive sites with strong support, the female can get seduced into building multiple nests. 

This is an example of “supernormal stimuli” — artificial stimuli that are even more effective than those provided by Mother Nature (tree limbs). Animals have a hard time resisting supernormal stimuli. There are many examples. Your robin will probably settle on one site and just lay eggs in that nest, or else just incubate eggs in that nest after laying, say, one egg in one nest and two in the other. She won’t lay two complete sets of eggs and try to incubate both of them at the same time.

Q. Will a blue jay steal eggs from a robin’s nest?
A. The main predators of robin eggs are snakes, squirrels, blue jays, and crows. Deer eat a lot of bird eggs and nestlings, too, but only from ground nests.

Q. What can we do with the robin egg we found in our yard?
A. The best thing to do with an egg that you find is to simply leave it be. I know you’re concerned about the little baby growing in it, but there is a strong chance that there may not even be a baby in there. This may be an egg that wasn’t fertilized or didn’t develop properly. After the other babies are a day or two old, the parents get rid of unhatched eggs just in case one of the growing babies accidentally crushes it. Rotten eggs are no fun!

Even if the egg were perfectly healthy, the chance of a human successfully incubating the egg and then successfully raising the baby from a hatchling is VERY remote. Robin eggs require high humidity, gentle daily turning, and level heat. You’d need a high-quality incubator to do it properly. Then once the babies hatch, parent robins feed them regurgitated worms and insects for the first three or four days–something humans just can’t do!. Newly hatched robins are weak and helpless, and their parents are designed precisely and have the exact right instincts for taking care of them. Our human hands are clumsy, and we have too many other concerns in our daily lives to devote every waking moment to a baby robin, as its real parents would do naturally.

There are very good reasons why it is against state and federal laws in the US to raise wild baby birds. Death at the hands of well-meaning people who aren’t feeding a robin nestling the proper diet can be painful for the baby. Far, far better to just allow the egg to cool. If a baby is still alive in there, it will simply stop developing within the egg, before it develops an awareness of pain.

Q. How long does it usually take a robin to build a nest?
A. It takes two to six days for robins to build their nest. 

Q. Does the female robin live someplace separate from the nest she is building?
A. Remember that the nest is not a bed; it’s an incubator and baby cradle, so the robin isn’t supposed to be on the nest at night until she has a full clutch of eggs. Until then, she roosts on a branch. 

Eggs
Q. Should we try to raise abandoned eggs ourselves? 
A. Robins only abandon their eggs when something happens that tells the robins they will have a poor chance of success. It seems unlikely that humans will have greater success. I know how sad it is to see these beautiful eggs and how very tempting it is to want to save the tiny babies inside. But it’s just as heartbreaking to watch the babies start out healthy, with their egg sac to provide some nutrition for a couple of days, and then wither and die at our hands.

Q. My robin built a nest and then disappeared before laying eggs. What happened?
A. Here are some possibilities to explain why the robins have not come back to use the nest:

1) Something dire happened to one or both robins: hit by a car, taken by a predator, etc.

2) She laid an egg but then something came and got the egg, and she quit laying.

3) She discovered a potential predator, such as a cat, jay, chipmunk, or snake, eyeing her nest and abandoned it because it wasn’t a safe place to raise babies.

4) She built her nest more quickly than expected (perhaps there was a good supply of mud from a recent rain?) and she wasn’t quite ready to start laying eggs.

If she does not return after 2-4 days, go ahead and remove the nest. Any other robins that come will build their own nest.

Q. How do we know if the bird inside a found robin egg on the ground is thriving?
A. You are going to be for serious heartbreak. If a robin egg is on the ground, it was either infertile and dumped by the parents, and won’t hatch—or was carried off by a jay or crow, and the robin parents chased them and forced the thief to drop the egg. The shaking and dropping could have badly damaged the embryo, and if the egg did hatch, the baby would not be likely to survive long.

Even if the egg were healthy, most of us just don’t see all the work that goes into incubation. the right temperature is important, but so is humidity, and so is frequent turning to ensure that no part of the growing chick gets dried out or stuck to the shell. Then if it doe survive to hatch, keeping this tiny chick alive is very, very difficult to do successfully, even by a trained wildlife rehabilitator. These are some of the reasons it is against state and federal laws to keep any wild bird egg or chick.

Q. What should I do if I find an injured bird or abandoned baby robin?
A. It is against state and federal laws in the United States to possess any wild native American bird in captivity. Raising a wild bird is only legally entrusted to licensed rehabilitators. It is impossible to save every injured or abandoned bird. The most important thing to remember is to get it to a licensed rehabilitation center as soon as possible.

Q. When a nestling falls from the nest, can I put it back? Can I handle them with gloves?
A. Robins identify their babies the way we humans recognize ours-by sight and sound, not by smell. So if you can safely put the babies back in the nest, go ahead!

Q. Why has the mother stopped sitting on the nest at night?
A. By the time the babies are about a week old, the nest is getting crowded, and the babies are capable of keeping themselves warm, all snuggled together. At this point, the mother robin starts sleeping on a tree branch again. If she is a wary mother, you might not see her feeding the young because robins are so fearful of alerting predators that they simply don’t go near the nest if they notice anyone observing them. 

Q. My male robin was killed. Will the female find another mate?
A. During the time that robins are establishing territories, many individuals are still migrating. If they find an open territory en route, they often take it over. Also in most healthy bird populations, there are “extra” birds called floaters that wait in the wings for a territory to open up. Floaters in your neighborhood might be timid about entering the yard for a while if your robin taught them that he was going to attack if they crossed his boundaries. It will take a little time for them to relax and check it out. Meanwhile, robins passing through may well notice an opening and fly right in. Normally females chase other females out, but fairly quickly adapt to a strange male.

Windows and Houses  
Q. How can I prevent a robin from crashing into my window?
A. Most robins that repeatedly crash into windows are territorial males. If a male sees his reflection in the glass, he thinks it could be another male on his territory. Normally when one male robin intrudes on another’s territory, he skulks around and flies away when the actual holder of the territory approaches. Not so with a reflection! 

Every time your robin gets close to the window, that robin image also comes close. When your robin assumes an aggressive stance, rather than turning tail and flying away, the image robin assumes an equally aggressive stance, and at every level of increasing aggression in your robin, his reflection matches it. Male robins spend a lot of time and energy keeping intruders away during the time the female is nest-building and incubating eggs. 

The only way you can help is to get rid of the image bird by breaking the reflection (without breaking the window). Closing a curtain from within seldom works, because birds can see very well, so even a faint image is very evident to them. Taping paper or cardboard to the outside of the window can be unsightly, and destroys the whole purpose of having a window, but is 100% effective. Soaping the window from the outside can work, but you really need to cover the entire thing. 

One thing that sometimes works is to hang helium balloons from the window, tied to a two- or three-foot length of the string (or longer) floating at just about the level the robin is focused on. For some reason, birds seem to fear helium balloons—I think because nothing they ever encounter in the natural world falls up so the movements seem very unpredictable. A rubber snake or plastic owl sometimes works, but birds often figure out within a day or two that they’re fake. Once the baby robins hatch, your male will get so busy tending to their feeding and care that he will stop worrying about that phantom image of himself.

Q. How do I get rid of nesting robins without hurting them or the eggs? 
A. There is really no way to get rid of them without hurting them or the eggs. During this awkward time, you need to figure out how to use the backyard without stressing the robins, leading to attacks. They are at their worst just before the eggs hatch—once the babies are being fed, they usually spend so much time finding food for them and protecting them from real predators that they don’t have time to attack people. 

Birds defending their nests virtually always attack the highest part of their perceived enemy. Whenever you walk past, hold a broom, balloon, or pole so it is well above your head. DON’T strike the bird with it! Just hold it vertically, and if the bird is exceptionally aggressive and does approach close enough to hit, it will hit that instead of you or your children. One other strategy I’ve heard a couple of people use successfully is to get someone else to tie up a LEASHED cat near the nest site and leave. As soon as the robins start making agitated sounds and dive-bombing the cat, go in and “rescue” them by getting the cat and bringing it in. They may well remember this kindness. 

Worries about Wintering Robins
Q. What do robins wintering in the northeast?
A. Robins switch diets in fall. They turn from earthworms to berries and other fruits. Because some forms of fruit (such as mountain ash berries and crab apples) remain available all winter long even in the north, a few robins can stay in an area with food enough to support them all winter. These robins are most often found in areas where there is a bit of open water from a nearby spring, stream, river, or large lake, and where there are fruit trees. The water and fruit get them through the season.

Q. Doesn’t a robin know to migrate south? Why does a robin stay during winter?
A. Robins are a migratory species, but their migration is far more complicated than simply a shift southward. There seems to be a great deal of individual variation in where they spend the winter, though males are far more likely to remain in the north than females. There are good reasons. Come spring, the male’s main job is to find and defend a territory. The females’ main job is to create and lay the eggs. This requires a lot of good nutrition and food energy, so females go where they are sure of good food supplies in winter. Yes, they have to use up food energy to migrate north. But migrating and laying eggs are easier for well-nourished birds.

Q. Won’t the cold hurt robins? 
A. Cold temperatures don’t hurt most birds—as long as they have food. As nights grow cooler during fall, northern birds start growing more down feathers close to their bodies. These feathers work like a down jacket. The down feathers insulate the birds, keeping the heat of their bodies inside. The robins make their body heat by shivering; as long as they have food to give them energy, they can survive extreme cold.

Q. Should I be feeding a robin wintering in my backyard?
A. Robins only spend the winter in areas where there is food available, so feeding them isn’t necessary. Nevertheless, a lot of people enjoy offering them food, creating a special bond with this pleasant bird. Robins will NOT take birdseed. Sometimes they’ll take frozen fruit, though it’s often hard to teach them that fruit in a feeder is food! Robins learn at an early age that fruit grows on trees and shrubs. They simply do not expect to find it anywhere else. One of the best kinds of food for wintering robins—and the easiest for them to discover—is mealworms. You can put out a dozen mealworms on a sunny day when the temperature is above freezing, and nearby robins will often notice their wiggly movements and investigate. Once robins discover the mealworms, they’ll come back even when the temperature is below freezing and the mealworms are stiff. If you start offering fruit in the same spot, the robins are more likely to notice it. Some favorite foods are blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. Buy bags of frozen fruit for them, since it will freeze outside anyway!

One of Journey North’s correspondents from Wisconsin used a heated bird bath to keep mealworms thawed and moving. He thought this would allow him to feed his whole flock of wintering robins, but one of the robins took over and defended the birdbath food source against all the other robins in his yard. This arrangement still helped the other Robins, who were sharing the fruit on neighborhood trees, because now there was one fewer bird to share with, and it made the one particular robin VERY happy! 

Q. Do robins need water in the winter?
A. In northern climates where ponds, rivers, streams, and lakes freeze over in the winter, a bird’s most available water source is often snow. But it takes energy to melt snow. Birds need to drink and, if possible, bathe even in the winter. Dirty feathers lose much of their insulating properties, so a clean bird is a warm bird. If you have a heated birdbath and worry about birds bathing and then being unable to fly off in sub-zero weather when the water freezes on them, you can modify the birdbath to allow them to drink but not bathe. Cover the top of your birdbath with a piece of a plastic-coated quarter- or half-inch hardware cloth or lace twigs or small branches across the top. Either method will allow the birds to stay dry while they drink through the openings. 

Q. Why are we seeing dozens and hundreds of robins this winter?
A. The robins have likely dropped in because they discovered a rich food source.

Q. How do robins prepare for winter?
A. In October they start seriously adding down feathers to improve their insulation for winter. Also, summer food supplies have diminished; there are still plenty of berries around to eat, but robins get seriously on the move in search of plentiful food supplies for the coming winter. They start seriously moving in October. Back on October 1, 1988, birdwatchers counted over 60,000 robins migrating over Duluth in northern Minnesota, so that’s serious migration. But in fall and winter, robins don’t stay in a single spot for long — they wander about searching for new sources of still-fresh fruits. 

Q. How do scientists learn where robins from one state/province migrate for the winter?
A. Scientists study bird banding data to learn where robins go. They put thousands of numbered bands on robin legs, but they know they will only recover data from a few of these birds in the future. So it takes a long time to amass enough data for them to draw accurate conclusions. Meanwhile, robins can change some of their migration patterns, making the research even more complicated. To see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s robin banding data to learn where robins from your area go in the winter, see our Bird Banding Data Study.

Q. What can I do to help robins in autumn and winter?
A. You can make your backyard bird-friendly. That means don’t rake too much. Dead leaves left under trees and shrubs are ideal spots for birds to forage for insects as the weather gets colder. You can also provide cover. Birds need shelter from harsh conditions, and vegetation in your yard will help provide it. Don’t prune back dead vegetation like vines and stalks, as these provide both valuable winter cover and nesting material for birds in the spring. If you have berry bushes or fruit trees, don’t pick them bare because those fruits are food sources for robins migrating through, or overwintering in your area. The best thing you can do is to plant native fruit trees and shrubs that will provide robins with fresh, wild food. To feed them in winter, one Journey North friend set out fruit and mealworms in a heated birdbath filled with sphagnum moss rather than water.

Q. Can you tell a migrant just by its size or color? 
A. Although different populations of robins are slightly different sizes and the color intensity of the plumage varies somewhat geographically, robins don’t really show the cut-and-dried plumage variations that populations and subspecies of others birds do. On average, robins are smallest in the warm, humid southeastern US, and smaller than average along the humid coast of northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Robins are largest in the high, dry Rocky Mountains, northern Great Plains, and northern deserts of the West.

Robin plumage is darkest in birds in the Pacific Northwest and in Newfoundland—both places where the humidity is exceptionally high. The amount of white in the tail is largest in the East and smallest in the West. An isolated robin population in the Baja California Sur is exceptionally pale.

But robins live up to their scientific name, Turdus migratorius (the “migrating thrush”), wandering widely and unpredictably in winter and often ending up in spring in entirely different areas from where they were raised, so there’s a lot of mixing. That means that size and color differences among populations are subtle at best; even with perfect views, we can never be absolutely certain where robins came from by either size or plumage.

Q. Why don’t birds sleep in their old nests in the wintertime? 
A. Nests are nurseries, not homes. Even if they were not, the nests that served robin families so well in the summer are built to last a single season and aren’t in the best shape by now. Most nests were built on branches of deciduous trees and shrubs, and autumn’s leaf fall exposes those nests to both elements and predators. But one creature that appreciates an empty bird nest is the deer mouse. These tiny mammals will build a roof over an old cup nest and stay warm all winter!

Q. Is there enough food for wintering robins birds that do not migrate?
A. Worms have much more protein than berries. But some birds manage to achieve a “balanced diet” over an annual cycle rather than day by day. Robins require protein especially when females are producing eggs and when both sexes are molting-these activities occur only during the time of year when they’re eating worms and insects. During winter when they switch to a diet of fruits, they are getting plenty of vitamins, and the carbohydrates give them plenty of energy to sustain their bodies. Winter is the time when their activity is limited and they aren’t growing new plumage or producing young.

Regarding berries, there are many different species, and some have a bitter taste until winter. So some berries are avoided during late summer and fall, and these are the ones that remain for winter food. Robins also eat crab apples. There is clearly not enough fruit to sustain as many robins in winter as live in New Hampshire in summer, but there is enough fruit to maintain a small but robust winter population. And robins aren’t like some birds, especially neotropical migrants, that maintain winter territories. When one food source becomes depleted in winter, a robin flock will move to another place. The only time robins are sedentary, remaining in one fixed place for weeks at a time, is during the nesting season when they are in their territories.

Q. I saw a robin eating suet, which was strange to see. Is this normal?
A. It’s not unheard of but is unusual. A robin’s warm-season diet is full of high-protein insects and worms. Suet is another source of protein. The Robin you saw seems quite smart, as he’s taught himself a new feeding strategy by watching other birds at your feeder!

Q. What are good trees we can plant that provides food for robins?
A. 
Choose species native to North America. Some summer berry trees include:

  • Serviceberry
  • Red mulberry
  • Wild plum
  • Pin cherry
  • Chokecherry
  • Blackberry
  • Raspberry
  • Thimbleberry
  • Elderberry
  • Grape

Fall berries include:

  • Dogwood
  • Silverberry
  • Winterberry
  • Apple
  • Mountain ash

Winterberries include:

  • Bittersweet
  • Hackberry
  • Hawthorn
  • Red cedar
  • Crabapple
  • Highbush cranberry
Other Problems
Q. Is it possible that I heard a robin in England? 
A. You didn’t hear an American Robin. What you saw was a European Blackbird. Remember the nursery rhyme, four-and-twenty were baked in a pie? Those are the birds! Yes, they are very closely related to our robin—actually in the same genus. Meanwhile, the Robin Red-breast of England isn’t at all related to our robin. Homesick Europeans who settled in America named our birds for the ones they missed at home. Our American Robin is bigger and duller than theirs but is the closest they could find to fit the bill, so to speak. 

Q. How can we help robins?
A. 
Keep cats indoors, set out nest platforms for robins, stop using insecticides in lawn sprays and only spot spray weed killers rather than spraying the entire lawn. Plant the kinds of berry trees and bushes that provide abundant food for robins and the kinds of trees and shrubs that provide good cover for nesting. Set out bird baths and set out robin feeders.

Q. How can we make a robin feeder?
A. Robins don’t visit bird feeders for seed, because they just don’t eat seeds. But some robins do learn to visit feeders to take berries, chopped up apples, and mealworms. You can also offer mealworms in plastic dishes or acrylic window feeders.

 

  1. What is the range of the American robin?
    A. The American robin is found over most of North America. 

    Q. What is the robin’s habitat?
    A.Robins can be found in a wide range of habitats. You can find them in marshes, fields, forest borders, orchards, hedges, cut-over woods, gardens, urban, suburban, rural yards, and parks.

    Q. What do robins eat?
    A. Robins eat large quantities of worms and other invertebrates, berries and fruits.

    Q. What is the robin’s role in the ecosystem?

    A. Robins are omnivores. They serve as predators mostly of insects and worms, but also of small snakes and other small reptiles and amphibians. They are also fruit and berry eaters. Sometimes they eat a berry in one place and then fly away. When they poop, their droppings often contain the seeds of these berries, so the robins can “plant” them in new places.Robins are in turn eaten by foxes, bobcats, hawks, shrikes, and owls, and crows and blue jays often take their eggs and babies. These are all natural predators. House cats, which are not natural predators because they are fed by humans and maintained at an artificially high population, kill exceptionally large numbers of robins because cats mostly stalk creatures where robins do their feeding on the ground. 

    Q. What are a robin’s enemies?

    A. Some of the natural predators named above are enemies of the robin, though some are also the robin’s natural friends. Jays and crows eat baby robins during the nesting season, but when they aren’t stalking a robin nest, they are very helpful to robins by alerting them of even greater dangers, and sometimes chasing away hawks and owls. Robins may also consider mockingbirds, waxwings, and other birds that compete for the fruit to be enemies—they often chase these birds away. Humans who leave cats outdoors and/or use lawn pesticides are probably a robin’s greatest enemies, endangering both the robins and, especially, their newly-fledged babies.

    Q. What happens to robins when worms are in scarce supply?

    A. Robins can easily switch from eating a lot of worms to taking almost entirely fruits, so when the ground starts getting cold in fall, robins change their diet. During droughts and other periods when worms are temporarily hard to find, robins can eat fruit. If pesticides kill most of the worms in an area, robins may stop nesting in that area.

    Q. How do earthworms migrate?

    A. In areas where the ground freezes, one sign of spring is the appearance of the first earthworms of the season. This is called a “vertical migration.” Earthworms, in the fall, migrate deeper into the earth, below the frost line. Sometimes they ball up to reduce moisture loss–as many as a hundred worms being bunched together–and thus spend the winter in inactivity. When spring comes and frost leaves the soil, the earthworms become migrants again, tunneling upward. They appear at the surface, leaving the first castings of the new seasons, as soon as the average temperatures of the ground reach about 36 degrees.

    Q. Where do robins spend the winter?

    A. Some robins retreat all the way to southern Texas and Florida, but others winter as far north as they can find berries. So robins have an enormous winter range

  2. What is the American robin’s population status?

    A. The American robin is recorded in every state of the United States and every province of Canada on Breeding Bird Surveys. The total population is stable or increasing in most places on a large scale, but in some urban locations where cats and pesticides are common, robins appear to be declining locally.

    Q. How can there be more robins today than when the colonists first came to America?

    A. When the colonists first arrived, just about all of eastern America was heavily forested, and there were few trees at all in the prairie. Colonists cleared the forests, making it easier for robins to hunt on the open ground, and also introduced more species of earthworms from Europe. In the prairie, they planted trees which robins use for nesting.

    Q. 
    How do humans affect robin migration?

    A. When humans used the insecticide called DDT in the U.S., many robins died during spring migration as their bodies metabolized large amounts of body fat at once–DDT from the worms robins ate all winter was stored in their fatty tissues and all released into their bloodstream at once. This was a harmful effect, and now that DDT is banned in the US, is no longer a problem for our robins. Humans also have very positive effects on migration by planting the trees that provide food and shelter for migrants.

    Q. How can we help robins?

    A. Keep cats indoors, set out nest platforms for robins, stop using insecticides in lawn sprays and only spot spray weed killers rather than spraying the entire lawn. Plant the kinds of berry trees and bushes that provide abundant food for robins and the kinds of trees and shrubs that provide good cover for nesting. Set out bird baths and set out robin feeders.

    Q. How can we make a robin feeder?

    A. Robins never visit bird feeders for seed, because they just don’t eat seeds. But some robins do learn to visit feeders to take berries, chopped up apples, and mealworms. You can also offer mealworms in plastic dishes or acrylic window feeders.

  3. What are the biggest dangers robins face?

    A.Most robins die from cats, hawks, and other predators. They also perish from accidents such as flying into windows, getting hit by moving cars, being electrocuted, getting infectious diseases, and being poisoned. Chemical insecticides can be very harmful to robins. If you use lawn sprays, be sure that they don’t have insecticides as well as weed-killing herbicides and fertilizers.

    Q. What are the biggest dangers facing robins?
    A. 
    Dangers facing robins include (from most dangerous to least):

  • Cats, which are mainly ground hunters and kill many adult robins and even more fledgling robins every year.
  • Pesticides, especially insecticides, sprayed on lawns. The chemicals used in the US and Canada break down into non-toxic molecules far faster than DDT did, but most are still highly toxic to robins for the time that they work on insects. Adult robins hopping on a freshly-sprayed lawn get their tummy feathers coated, and then if they incubate their eggs or babies, the toxins can be taken in, especially through nestling skin, to kill the babies. Pesticides also hurt populations of earthworms, which can make robins decline in areas where many people spray their lawns.
  • Crows and jays, which eat robin babies. This is a significant problem where these species are kept at artificially high numbers in cities, but otherwise is offset by the help crows and jays give robins in warning about other dangers.
  • Hawks, shrikes, and owls, which kill and eat robins. These natural predators’ numbers drop as their food supply dwindles, so they are far less common than robins, and except in rare local situations simply don’t affect robin numbers any more than robins affect earthworm numbers!
  • Snakes, which eat robin eggs in the areas where tree-climbing snakes live. These are uncommon natural predators and don’t hurt Robin populations.
  • Communications towers kill a few migrating robins each year, but far fewer robins than neotropical migrants such as warblers, orioles, and other thrushes. Other accidents: bonking into windows, car strikes, and electrocution.
  • Thorns, which sometimes get stuck on robin feathers. One bird bander once caught a robin with a large thorn stuck in its throat.
  1. How much do newly-hatched robins weigh?
    A. 5.5 grams–a little less than a quarter.
  2. How long does it take for a baby robin to hatch from its egg?
    A.The first baby hatches 12-14 days after the last egg is laid. Eggs usually hatch a day apart, in the order they were laid.
  3. How do babies hatch from the eggs?
    A.Hatching can take all day. Each chick must fight its way out of the egg. First, it breaks a hole in the shell with its egg tooth, a hook on its beak. Then the baby pokes, stretches, and struggles inside the egg, with many stops to rest. Finally, it breaks free.
  4. How do baby robins eat?
    A.For the first four days of a nestling’s life, the parent birds regurgitate partly digested food into each baby’s mouth. By five days of age, the nestlings get earthworms that parents break into small mouthfuls. The babies eat more each day. Soon parents give them whole worms and large insects. Each young robin may eat 14 feet of earthworms in a two-week nest life—and worms are not even their main food!
  5. Who feeds the baby robins?
    A.Both parents feed the babies. A robin might make 100 feeding visits to its nest each day. There’s no time to go far on a food hunt. That’s why a good territory is important to robins in spring.
  6. How fast do baby robins grow?
    A.Baby robins are helpless at birth but grow fast! They reach the size of their parents after just two weeks!
  7. Who takes care of the babies?
    A.Both parents have full-time jobs. They protect the nest, find food, and feed hungry babies. The babies are in the nest for at least 9 days, or as long as 16 days.
  8. When do babies leave the nest?
    A.Baby robins jump from their nest when they are about 13 days old. Leaving the nest is called fledging. This is a dangerous time for baby robins. They need time—and safe places—to practice flying. Please keep kitty indoors!
  9. When do robin babies learn how to fly?
    A.Baby robins can’t fly well when they leave the nest. They must build up muscles and grow adult feathers to be strong fliers. The babies are capable fliers just 10-15 days after fledging.
  10. When do babies leave the nest?
    A.Baby robins are ready to leave the nest when they are about 13 days old. Within 24 hours the nest will be empty.
  11. Are babies independent when they leave the nest?
    A.No. Once babies fledge, both parents still feed them for a few days. Mom soon leaves to lay a new clutch of eggs. The fledglings will need to learn from other robins when Dad leaves to help with new nestlings.
  12. How do baby robins recognize their parents?
    A.When they first hatch, they probably don’t! They know the parents have arrived with food by the “bounce” they feel on the nest, and on a sunny day by the shadow, their parents make over them. This is their signal to pop up with their mouths open. Little by little, they start learning the sounds their parents make, too. By the time their eyes open, they already know their parents’ voices.
  13. Q. How do baby robins keep their nest clean?
    Baby robins produce their poop in fecal sacs, encased in strong membranes so they don’t leak. To learn more, see our Fecal Sac Lesson.
  14. When do young robins learn to fly?
    A.Baby robins jump from their nest when they are about 13 days old. It takes them another 10-15 days to become strong fliers and independent birds.
  15. What three things does a baby robin know as soon as it hatches?
    A. 
    The nestling knows to sit very still when its parents are away, to pop up and open its mouth to beg for food the moment its parents return, and to poop as soon as it swallows some food.
  16. How do baby robins recognize their parents?
    A. 
    When they first hatch, they probably don’t! They know the parents have arrived with food by the “bounce” they feel on the nest, and on a sunny day by the shadow, their parents make over them. This is their signal to pop up with their mouths open. Little by little, they start learning the sounds their parents make, too. By the time their eyes open, they already know their parents’ voices.
  17. How do baby robins keep their nest clean?
    A. 
    They produce their poop in fecal sacs, encased in strong membranes so they don’t leak.
  18. What should I do if I find an injured or abandoned a baby robin?

    A.It is against state and federal laws in the United States to possess any wild native American bird in captivity. Raising a wild bird is only legally entrusted to licensed rehabilitators. It is impossible to save every injured or abandoned bird. The most important thing to remember is to get it to a licensed rehabilitation center as soon as possible.

    Q. Why has the mother stopped sitting on the nest at night?

    A. By the time the babies are about a week old, the nest is getting crowded, and the babies are capable of keeping themselves warm, all snuggled together. At this point, the mother robin starts sleeping on a tree branch again. If she is a wary mother, you might not see her feeding the young because robins are so fearful of alerting predators that they simply don’t go near the nest if they notice anyone observing them. 

    Q. When a nestling falls from the nest, can I put it back? After a big windstorm, I found two very small baby robins on the ground under their nest. I’m afraid if I pick them up, the smell of my hands will make their parents abandon them. Can I handle them with gloves?

    A. Robins identify their babies the way we humans recognize ours-by sight and sound, not by smell. So if you can safely put the babies back in the nest, go ahead!

  19. What do baby robins look like when they hatch from eggs?

    A.Baby robins are colorful. Their skin in bright light may appear yellowish, and is transparent enough that it’s possible to see a baby robin’s green gall bladder, purplish-red liver, and orange yolk sac right through the skin! A newly-hatched robin has only a few tufts of fluff. The down feathers grow in quickly. This layer of soft feathers makes the nestling look fluffy and helps keep it warm when a mother is away. How do body feathers grow? Each feather looks like a miniature straw at first. Then, that smooth outer case—the sheath—crumbles and allows the developing feather to open. In about 14 days the baby robin is covered with body feathers. Baby robins are born with their eyes closed. Eyes remain shut for about five days.

    Q. Why are baby robins ugly at first? Yesterday the beautiful blue eggs hatched, and when my children saw the babies, they were surprised at how ugly they are! They’ve seen fluffy baby ducks and chickens but these robins don’t look anything like that! 

    A. The reason ducklings and chicks are cuter than newly hatched robins is that they are actually older than robins when they hatch out! Most mother ducks and birds related to chickens nest on the ground and lay a dozen or so eggs. If those babies hatched out helpless like robins, their calls and movements could quickly attract predators. It’s much easier and safer for the female to quietly enter and leave the nest alone and incubate for a few weeks longer until the babies are strong enough to follow her out of the nest as soon as they hatch. It would be very difficult for a mother duck or chicken to find and bring enough food for so many babies all by herself, and male ducks and roosters simply don’t know how to help care for babies. So upon hatching, ducklings, and chicks, which are precocial species, immediately fluff out and follow their mother, who leads them to food and teaches them where to hide when danger approaches. They are developed enough to eat by themselves right from the start.

    Songbirds are smaller than chickens and ducks, and mothers expend relatively more energy incubating their eggs. They have fewer babies in a brood, so it is easier for them to successfully feed their four or five babies than it would be for a mother duck or hen to feed a dozen (and most father songbirds, including robins, help with this task). It simply works better for them if their babies hatch while still very undeveloped. Birds with helpless young like this are altricial species.

    Baby robins may be undeveloped, with very few feathers and bulging eyes at first, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Their parents think they’re the most beautiful, wonderful babies in the world! And looking at them, you can learn a lot about birds. The first few days, you can see how enormous bird eyes actually are beneath their transparent skin and translucent skull. When their feathers grow in, we see only a tiny bit of those huge eyes.

    Baby bird skin is clear enough to allow us to see some of their internal organs. You can see the greenish gall bladder (which holds bile produced in the liver to help them digest fat juicy worms!) the purplish-red liver, and the orange yolk-sac. As that grows smaller and the nestling grows bigger, you might notice some bright yellow areas here and there, those are fat deposits. Down feathers grow in fairly quickly to make the nestlings a little fluffy, so they can stay warm when their mother isn’t incubating. Watch how their body feathers grow in. Each one appears to be a very tiny cylinder at first, like a tiny drinking straw, but that smooth outer case called the “sheath,” crumbles to allow the developing feather to open up. It takes only fourteen days or so for these tiny, unformed little creatures to grow a full body covering of feathers, with bright and 

  20. What color are robin eggs? 
    A. Blue. People have actually named a color “robin’s egg blue” for the precise shade.
  21. What compound in the eggshell makes the eggs blue? Does this compound require a special nutrient in the robin’s diet?
    A.The eggshell color comes from pigments in the mother robin’s blood! Hemoglobin from ruptured blood cells is transformed into “bile pigments,” which are carried by the robin’s blood to where the eggshell forms. So she doesn’t need anything special in her diet to have properly colored eggs.
  22. Does only the female incubates the eggs?
    A.Yes. The male doesn’t have a brood patch and doesn’t know how to brood eggs.
  23. How long does it take for robin eggs to hatch? 
    A.Incubation lasts for 12-14 days from the time the last egg is laid.
  24. For how much of the day does a robin incubate the eggs? 
    A.Females spend about 50 minutes of every hour incubating. 

    Q. Will the male robin take over the nest if the mother cannot?
    A cat killed one of my nesting robins and she was sitting on four eggs.

  25. How long does the mother robin wait before she starts laying eggs? 
    A.The robin has to have a completed nest before she has a place to lay her eggs. Usually, she’ll start within a day or two, but the timing can be affected by a few things: Both Mom and Dad Robin have to have good nutrition before they’ll be ready to lay eggs. If the weather has been bad and she has to spend a lot of time looking for food, she may not have the energy. If it’s been cold, she may be delayed because she won’t be able to produce the heat necessary to incubate. The female has to ovulate before egg formation starts, and in a very late spring, she may not be ready even though the nest is built.
  26. How many eggs do robins normally lay? 
    A.Most robin clutches during their first nesting of a season have 3 or 4 eggs. Very rarely there are 5, but this most often happens when a robin lays an egg in another robin’s nest. Second and third nestings of a season sometimes have only 2 eggs.
  27. Why do robins lay their eggs later in the day than most songbirds? 
    A.Robins get a lot of their calories from food from the worms they eat. They find their worms by sight, so there needs to be a little light for them to hunt, but the worms hide soon after sunrise. So robins eat first thing in the morning and THEN lay their eggs.
  28. Will a blue jay steal eggs from a robin’s nest?
    We have been watching two nests in our yard. Yesterday I found an egg on the ground away from the nest in a different part of the yard. I checked one of the nests and all four eggs were gone. I’m thinking blue jays may have robbed the robin’s nest.

    A.How very sad. If the female was killed, the eggs are doomed. The male doesn’t have a brood patch and doesn’t know how to brood eggs. If it was the male who died, the female might continue to incubate, but may just give the nest up for lost because the chances of bringing off more than one or two nestlings are very slight with just her to feed them. Also, the female starts focusing on a new batch of eggs after the young fledge, so the father is quite essential for the ‘finishing school’ lessons on surviving. Outdoor cats are a serious ecological problem, but also cause such heartbreaking individual losses. I’m very sorry. That said, please do write to let us know if one of the parents attends the nest, and what happens, as this is the best way for scientists to keep on learning about robins and their individual differences.

    The main predators of robin eggs are blue jays, crows, snakes, squirrels. Deer eat a lot of bird eggs and nestlings, too, but only from ground nests. Snakes swallow eggs on the spot, and since you found one egg in the yard, a snake most certainly wasn’t the culprit. Squirrels usually stay up in branches, and seldom drop their eggs, so I’m betting it wasn’t a squirrel, either. Jays and crows are both egg and nestling eaters, and so it’s hard to be sure which species raided your nest. Robins actually appreciate having jays around as long as they stay away from their nests because jays are good at warning about other dangers. But it’s heartbreaking to lose the eggs or nestlings of any nest to predators. And the worst problem with crows and jays is that both species are highly intelligent. If you are studying the nests in your yard, be sure that there are no crows or jays watching you. If they figure out that you’re watching nests, they may start watching for you to lead them to their next supper. 

    Q. What can we do with the robin egg we found in our yard?

    A. The best thing to do with an egg that you find is to simply leave it be. I know you’re concerned about the little baby growing in it, but there is a strong chance that there may not even be a baby in there. This may be an egg that wasn’t fertilized or didn’t develop properly. After the other babies are a day or two old, the parents get rid of unhatched eggs just in case one of the growing babies accidentally crushes it. Rotten eggs are no fun!

    There is also a chance that there really was a healthy baby inside the egg. One likely cause: a predator may have carried off the egg, and dropped it in a panic as the angry parents dive-bombed it. Although the egg looks fine on the outside, the baby inside may have been badly shaken during the flight and especially when it was dropped. If so, the baby inside may already be dead or may soon die, and if it does survive to hatch, there is a strong possibility that it will be badly deformed, making its short life unendurably painful. 

    Even if the egg were perfectly healthy, the chance of a human successfully incubating the egg and then successfully raising the baby from a hatchling is VERY remote. Robin eggs require high humidity, gentle daily turning, and level heat. You’d need a high-quality incubator to do it properly. Then once the babies hatch, parent robins feed them regurgitated worms and insects for the first three or four days–something humans just can’t do!. Newly hatched robins are weak and helpless, and their parents are designed precisely and have the exact right instincts for taking care of them. Our human hands are clumsy, and we have too many other concerns in our daily lives to devote every waking moment to a baby robin, as its real parents would do naturally.

    People tend to both under- AND over-estimate the amount of food baby robins need, giving them too much in single feedings and not enough over an entire day. The real parents spend literally every waking hour searching for food for them, returning to the nest every few minutes all day long, from sunrise to sunset. Can you do this consistently for several weeks? It’s also very difficult to make a baby bird diet exactly balanced. Robins feed their young worms, insects, spiders, and some fruits. Outdoors, the nest is shaded enough to protect from the sun but gets a few rays of sun each day, which the baby requires for manufacturing Vitamin D-3. Indoors, you need to provide this vitamin, but it’s very difficult to make the precise balance of calories and vitamins and minerals that natural robin parents provide.

    There are very good reasons why it is against state and federal laws in the US to raise wild baby birds. Death at the hands of well-meaning people who aren’t feeding a robin nestling the proper diet can be painful for the baby. Far, far better to just allow the egg to cool. If a baby is still alive in there, it will simply stop developing within the egg, before it develops an awareness of pain.

    Q. Should we try to raise abandoned eggs ourselves? 
    A robin nest on our eaves has seven eggs in it, and suddenly the robins are gone! We haven’t seen the mother in 4 days!

  29. First, it is against state and federal laws to keep any wild bird — whether an egg, chick or adult. Robins only abandon their eggs when something happens that tells the robins they will have a poor chance of success. It seems unlikely that humans will have greater success. I know how sad it is to see these beautiful eggs and how very tempting it is to want to save the tiny babies inside. But it’s just as heartbreaking to watch the babies start out healthy, with their egg sac to provide some nutrition for a couple of days, and then wither and die at our hands.

As for the seven eggs, that is too many for one robin to have laid. There must have been another bird laying her eggs in there besides the pair. That may be why it was abandoned. Ornithologists call robins determinate layers. After a female robin lays four or five eggs, her body simply stops producing more until she’s incubated and raised these. 

Q. Did I harm the eggs by watering a hanging plant in which a robin is nesting? 
Before I knew the eggs were there (the plant is higher than I can see inside) I watered it with warm water, surely pouring water directly over at least one of the eggs. The mother is still sitting on the nest. What’s the chance that I’ve already harmed the eggs?

  1. Anything that outdoors has to be at least a little waterproof. If the eggs weren’t sitting in water for longer than a few minutes, the ones that got wet should be fine.

    Q. Should I just quit watering the plant and let it die?
    The nest is in the middle of the plant, so I could water around the edges. I’m afraid I will harm the eggs and baby birds when they hatch. 

  2. It should be fine to water around the edge of the plant, but give the mother time to fly off each time, and don’t water after the babies’ feathers are growing thick and they get close to fledging.

    Q. How do we know if the bird inside a robin egg is thriving? 
    My daughter found an intact Robin egg in the grass. There was no nest anywhere. We took it home wondering if the bird was still alive in its egg. We are currently trying to keep it by putting it in an abandoned nest under the warm light.

  3. If a robin egg is on the ground, it was either infertile and dumped by the parents, and won’t hatch—or it was carried off by a jay or crow, and the robin parents chased them and forced the thief to drop the egg. The shaking and dropping could have badly damaged the embryo, and if the egg did hatch, the baby would not be likely to survive long.

    Even if the egg were healthy, most of us just don’t see all the work that goes into incubation. The right temperature is important, but so is humidity, and so is frequent turning to ensure that no part of the growing chick gets dried out or stuck to the shell. Then, if it did survive to hatch, keeping a tiny chick alive is very, very difficult to do successfully, even by a trained wildlife rehabilitator. These are some of the reasons it is against state and federal laws to keep any wild bird egg or chick.

 

  When do robins leave their wintering grounds?

  1. A.Robins typically start moving northward from Florida and the Gulf states and tend to follow the 37-degree average daily isotherm. Migratory restlessness builds up as day length increases. Scientists call this “Zugunruhe,” a German compound word consisting of Zug (move, migration) and Unruhe (anxiety, restlessness).
  2. Why do robins migrate?
    A.Robins migrate because the ground freezes, locking them out from their favorite food, earthworms and because winter weather makes it impossible to find juicy caterpillars and other insect food. Robins switch their diet to fruit in winter, but there is not enough fruit in the north to feed all the robins that live in the north all summer. That’s why most robins move south.

    Q. How fast do robins fly during migration?
    A. Robins fly about 30 – 36 m.p.h. during migration.

    Q. How far do robins usually fly each day when they migrate north?
    A. Robins can fly for many hours each day, so on days with good migrating conditions, they probably cover roughly 100-200 miles per day.

  3. Do robins migrate along the 37-degree isotherm? 
    A.Yes, the huge bulk of male robins follow this migration pattern in spring, though there is a wide amount of variation among individuals.

    Q. How do weather patterns influence robin migration?
    A. Robins often move ahead of warm fronts, arriving just before or along with the rainy weather. This means they arrive right when earthworms must emerge from their tunnels or drown. 

    Q. How far is the Robins’ migration?
    A. Some robins fly thousands of miles, such as the individuals that migrate from Vancouver Island to as far south as Guatemala. Others don’t migrate at all, such as robins that breed in southern Mexico and Baja California. Most robins migrate intermediate distances.

    Q. Do robins migrate by day or night?
    A. Although robins occasionally migrate at night, they mostly migrate during the daytime.

  4. How do robins find their way when storms blow them far off course?
    A.Robins figure out their location on the planet in much the way sailors on the high seas once did–using the angle of the sun in relation to the time of day. If blown off course, they fly to where the sun will be at the proper angle.

    Q. Do all the robins survive the migration?
    A. No! Scientists estimate that only 25% of fledging robins survive until November. And many experienced adults die during migration, too.

  5. Which returns first: males or females?
    A.Male robins arrive on the breeding grounds a few days to two weeks before the females return. You can tell male robins because their head and tail feathers are very dark black and bright orange in comparison to those of the female. When the first females arrive later, you’ll notice their plumage appears faded and drab in comparison to that of the males. 

    Q. What do robins eat when getting ready for their migration?
    A. At winter’s end, robins eat a lot of berries. They also eat as many worms as they can find at the start of spring migration. In late summer and early fall, they prepare for migration by eating a lot of fruit and insects as well as worms.

    Q. Do robins travel together when they migrate?
    A. Yes, they form loose flocks for both feeding and flying during migration.

    Q. What are the best weather conditions for robin migration?
    A. In many areas, high-pressure systems with northwesterly winds are best for migrating during fall. In spring, robins follow warm fronts.Cool conditions are better than warm.

    Q. What are the least favorable weather conditions for migrating robins?
    A. Hot weather gets them overheated. Rain and snow are hard to migrate in. Ice rain and hail are much worse.

    Q. Why don’t robins stay in the south? Why migrate north in spring?

    A. Robins are very often stressed by heat, and areas where robins winter often has hot summers. Soils in the South can even get so warm and dry that worms retreat deeper into their burrows during hot, dry spells, making them harder for robins to find. Also, a careful look at a map of North America shows a vast landmass with frigid winters but pleasant summers, where earthworms and other robin food thrive. Robins evolved to take advantage of that huge food resource.

  6. Why do females arrive later than males?

    A. Male and female robins both feed their babies. But before the eggs hatch, the male and female have different jobs. The female builds the nest, and produces and incubates the eggs. The male chooses and defends their territory, and finds some nest materials for the female to use. He must return early to have a good choice of territories and to protect his choice against robins migrating through. If snow or ice storms limit his food supplies for a few days, he can still easily survive until the next thaw. The female has no urgent need to return early since there is nothing important for her to do until there is a good mud supply for building her nest. As a matter of fact, if she builds too early, hard frosts at night can weaken her nest. And if she runs out of food so soon before the nesting season, it can make it hard for her body to produce eggs. So she waits until conditions are more favorable so she can continue to get a reliable winter diet as long as necessary.
  7. Can you tell a migrant just by its size or color?

    A. Although different populations of robins are slightly different sizes and the color intensity of the plumage varies somewhat geographically, robins don’t really show the cut-and-dried plumage variations that populations and subspecies of others birds do. On average, robins are smallest in the warm, humid southeastern US, and smaller than average along the humid coast of northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Robins are largest in the high, dry Rocky Mountains, northern Great Plains, and northern deserts of the West.

Robin plumage is darkest in birds in the Pacific Northwest and in Newfoundland—both places where the humidity is exceptionally high. The amount of white in the tail is largest in the East and smallest in the West. An isolated robin population in the Baja California Sur is exceptionally pale.

But robins live up to their scientific name, Turdus migratorius (the “migrating thrush”), wandering widely and unpredictably in winter and often ending up in spring in entirely different areas from where they were raised, so there’s a lot of mixing. That means that size and color differences among populations are subtle at best; even with perfect views, we can never be absolutely certain where robins came from by either size or plumage.

Q. How do flocks get started in the first place?

A. When a brood of baby robins fledge, they are taken care of by both parents for a few days. Then the female gets ready to lay more eggs. When she starts incubating the next clutch of eggs, the male continues to take care of the first brood. At nighttime, he leads them to a nice, well-sheltered stand of trees or shrubs to sleep. Other male robins are also leading their babies to this area, which is called a roost. The young birds get used to sleeping in a big group (flock). When the new eggs hatch, the father leaves his older babies to help feed and care for the new nestlings. The older babies are fine on their own, hanging out with other fledglings. They learn that being in groups, or flocks, is normal. Robins ARE territorial on their summer breeding territories, but not at their roots, nor in feeding trees. Flocking is a behavior that serves robins well when it’s not breeding season. Advantages of being in flocks are that more eyes can search for food sources, and more eyes and ears can be watchful for predators. 

Q. How do flocks of mixed species get going?

A. Mockingbirds, waxwings, Pine Grosbeaks, and other fruit-eating birds that join up with Robin flocks usually get going when the birds are searching for fruit trees. Hearing fruit-eating birds attract other fruit-eaters, of the same as well as different species, because they all need the same food.

Q. How do robins prepare for winter?

A. In October they start seriously adding down feathers to improve their insulation for winter. Also, summer food supplies have diminished; there are still plenty of berries around to eat, but robins get seriously on the move in search of plentiful food supplies for the coming winter. They start seriously moving in October. Back on October 1, 1988, birdwatchers counted over 60,000 robins migrating over Duluth in northern Minnesota, so that’s serious migration. But in fall and winter, robins don’t stay in a single spot for long — they wander about searching for new sources of still-fresh fruits. 

Q. How do scientists learn where robins from one state/province migrate for the winter? 

A. Scientists study bird banding data to learn where robins go. They put thousands of numbered bands on robin legs, but they know they will only recover data from a few of these birds in the future. So it takes a long time to amass enough data for them to draw accurate conclusions. Meanwhile, robins can change some of their migration patterns, making the research even more complicated. To see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s robin banding data to learn where robins from your area go in the winter, see our Bird Banding Data Study.

Q. When a robin migrates, does it travel in small or large groups, or alone?

A. All of the above! Robins often associate in flocks, and sometimes these are huge. I once counted 60,000 robins flying along Lake Superior in just 5 hours! And sometimes robins fly alone. But over the years that I counted migrants along Lake Superior, most of the robins were in flocks of about 10-50 birds. Over the course of a year, robins each lead two entirely different lives. In spring and summer, they’re territorial worm-and insect-eaters. In fall and winter, they switch to berries and other fruits and live in sociable flocks. Robins migrate and spend the winter in flocks to make it easier to spot predators.

Q. Do robins migrate by flying close to the ground? Do they rest at night?

A. When robins are flying short distances, between fruit trees and roost trees in a neighborhood, they fly below tree height. When they make major movements, they fly much higher, though lower than hawks and other birds that use thermal air currents. I live in Duluth, MN, on a major robin migration flyway, yet from my own yard, I never see the higher flying flocks. I have to stand on one of the ridges in my area to see the large, high-flying flocks. So I believe it’s more an issue of a vantage point than anything. They rest overnight in large numbers in trees.

Q. Do robins from different areas in the north travel to different areas in the south?

A. Robins are “nomadic,” meaning they wander irregularly. The same individual robin may winter one year in Texas, one year in Florida, and one year in Wisconsin! You just never know.

Q. How long does a robin’s migratory flight usually take? Does it depend on different conditions?

A. The spring migratory flight depends entirely on weather since they follow the 37-degree isotherm. It can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks for a robin to go from Texas to Minnesota, for example. Fall migration never really ends, since robins wander throughout the autumn, winter, and early spring.

Q. Why do robins molt just before they are about to migrate south?

A. They molt so they will have fresh feathers for their flight. These fresh feathers will also be very good for insulating them from the winter cold. Robins start molting their flight feathers in mid-June and have finished molting them by early September. They molt their body feathers from late July into October. One by one, each feather is pushed out by a new one. Most feathers last for a whole year. If a feather gets pulled out when the robin isn’t molting, that feather gets replaced fairly quickly.

Q. Do baby robins migrate alone? How do they know where to go?

A. After a brood of young robins fledges (leave the nest), the mother starts building a new nest and laying new eggs even as she still spends most of the time each day attending to those fledglings. The father spends all day with the fledglings and leads them to a roost at nighttime, where they join with other fathers and fledglings. When the mother finishes laying a new clutch (which takes usually four to six days after her new nest is built), she starts incubating and leaves the fledglings to their father’s care. When the new eggs hatch, the father leaves the fledglings on their own and returns to feeding the new nestlings. Those fledglings hang out with the other fledglings from their nighttime roost, finding fruit trees and worms and being sociable, and every night the fathers join them in the roost. As the last broods are done being raised, the mothers join these flocks. So by the summer’s end, robin flocks contain birds of all ages that start to wander, looking for new feeding areas that provide some worms and fruit. The young birds hang out with these restless flocks, moving from place to place in search of food, mostly headed in a southerly direction. They don’t have to know where to go on their own because of their need to associate with other robins.

Q. How do robins know which way to migrate?

A. There is a powerful instinct that makes them grow very restless in spring and fall. And that instinct includes telling them which way to head. After wandering during winter–and individual robins can go to entirely different places from one winter to the next–robins often find their way to the exact backyard they nested in year after year. As daytime migrants, they may well find their way by using the angle of the sun to guide them. Some birds have tiny bits of magnetite in their brains that help them know which way is north–I’m not sure if robins have been analyzed for this. The trickiest migration to understand is fall migration. How does a baby robin that has never migrated before know which way to head? Again, more research is needed. But it’s quite possible that part of their migration is learned because young robins tend to join with adults in big migratory flocks. But as with many robin behaviors, it’s probably a mixture of instinct and learning both.

Q. Have humans had any effect on how long the robins will stay before migration?

A. Before migrating south, robins often gather in areas with abundant food. The kinds of plants humans grow affect robins because of this. The impulse to migrate is strong in most robins, so even while food is abundant the majority of robins in the north suddenly move on. But when a great amount of food remains, individual robins and groups of robins often remain.

Q. Has there been a change in how early robins are migrating from year to year?

A. During winter, robins are very nomadic. In some exceptional places, they may appear year after year, but their wandering may also change dramatically sometimes because of weather and food patterns farther north. For example, if the fruit is unusually abundant in Georgia and Tennessee in one fall and winter, the bulk of robins might not bother to migrate as far as Florida. As temperatures grow milder, more robins may winter farther north. But as of now, the biggest February flocks of robins are usually in the St. Petersburg area of Florida, according to the Great Backyard Bird Count. 

Q. Is there enough food for wintering robins that do not migrate? How can berries replace worms in regards to nutrition? Don’t worms have more protein?

A. You’re right that worms have much more protein than berries. But some birds manage to achieve a balanced diet over an annual cycle rather than day by day. Robins require protein especially when females are producing eggs and when both sexes are molting-these activities occur only during the time of year when they’re eating worms and insects. During winter when they switch to a diet of fruits, they are getting plenty of vitamins, and the carbohydrates give them plenty of energy to sustain their bodies. Winter is the time when their activity is limited and they aren’t growing new plumage or producing young.

Regarding berries, there are many different species, and some have a bitter taste until winter. So some berries are avoided during late summer and fall, and these are the ones that remain for winter food. Robins also eat crab apples. There is clearly not enough fruit to sustain as many robins in winter as live in New Hampshire in summer, but there is enough fruit to maintain a small but robust winter population. And robins aren’t like some birds, especially neotropical migrants, that maintain winter territories. When one food source becomes depleted in winter, a robin flock will move to another place. The only time robins are sedentary, remaining in one fixed place for weeks at a time, is during the nesting season when they are in their territories.

  1. Doesn’t a robin know to migrate south? I live in Canada. A robin is wintering in my yard.

    A. Robins are a migratory species, but their migration is far more complicated than simply a shift southward. There seems to be a great deal of individual variation in where they spend the winter, though males are far more likely to remain in the north than females. There are good reasons. Come spring, the male’s main job is to find and defend a territory. The females’ main job is to create and lay the eggs. This requires a lot of good nutrition and food energy, so females go where they are sure of good food supplies in winter. Yes, they have to use up food energy to migrate north. But migrating and laying eggs are easier for well-nourished birds.
  2. Do all robins migrate south?

    A.Robins are a migratory species, but their migration is far more complicated than simply a shift southward. There seems to be a great deal of individual variation in how far they go and where they spend winter. Males are far more likely to remain in the north than females. for some very good reasons. Come spring, the male’s main job is to find and defend a territory. The females’ main job is to create and lay the eggs. This requires a lot of good nutrition and food energy, so females go where they are sure of good food supplies in winter. Yes, they have to use up food energy to migrate north. But migrating and laying eggs are easier for well-nourished birds. 

    Q. What can I do to help robins in autumn and winter?

    A.You can make your backyard bird-friendly. That means don’t rake too much. Dead leaves left under trees and shrubs are ideal spots for birds to forage for insects as the weather gets colder. You can also provide cover. Birds need shelter from harsh conditions, and vegetation in your yard will help provide it. Don’t prune back dead vegetation like vines and stalks, as these provide both valuable winter cover and nesting material for birds in the spring. If you have berry bushes or fruit trees, don’t pick them bare because those fruits are food sources for robins migrating through, or overwintering in your area. The best thing you can do is to plant native fruit trees and shrubs that will provide robins with fresh, wild food. To feed them in winter, one Journey North friend set out fruit and mealworms in a heated birdbath filled with sphagnum moss rather than water. 

    Q. How do earthworms migrate?

    A.In areas where the ground freezes, one sign of spring is the appearance of the first earthworms of the season. This is called a “vertical migration.” Earthworms, in the fall, migrate deeper into the earth, below the frost line. Sometimes they ball up to reduce moisture loss–as many as a hundred worms being bunched together–and thus spend the winter in inactivity. When spring comes and frost leaves the soil, the earthworms become migrants again, tunneling upward. They appear at the surface, leaving the first castings of the new seasons, as soon as the average temperatures of the ground reach about 36 degrees.

    Q. How do scientists learn where robins from one state or province migrate for the winter?

    A. Scientists study bird banding data to learn where robins go. They put thousands of numbered bands on robin legs, but they know they will only recover data from a few of these birds in the future. So it takes a long time to amass enough data for them to draw accurate conclusions. Meanwhile, robins can change some of their migration patterns, making the research even more complicated.

  3. How do we tell whether a robin in early spring is a migrant or a resident?

    A.It’s usually impossible to tell by their appearance unless they have been banned or color-marked, except for one lucky thing. Male robins from Newfoundland and Labrador are darker than other robins, with almost black backs, brighter red underparts, more noticeable striping on the white throat, and a bolder eye-ring. People farther south in Canada and the U.S. may notice the difference when they spot one of these, and then they’ll know for sure that these are the northern race rather than their own breeding robins. Many magazine photos of winter robins show these brightly colored ones, which make a lovely contrast against snow-covered branches and orange berries. But there is another difference between local and migrant robins. Male robins that intend to remain in your area will sing their territorial song. Robins that are passing through will occasionally sing, but not as often, especially at dawn, and usually, they remain fairly quiet.

    Q: How can I predict where my visiting robin was yesterday?

    A. Robins migrate at a speed of about 30 miles per hour and can migrate during day or night. They average 38 miles per day, but some days they don’t migrate at all, and other days they can go many times that. So it’s impossible to be exactly sure where your robin was yesterday unless it was wearing a satellite transmitter.

    Q. What might be some advantages for robins to migrate in groups?

    A. While feeding, the more robins there are, the more likely that at least one of them will notice a predator and warn the rest. During migratory flights, hawks have trouble singling out one robin to strike when faced with their fast-moving, tight migratory flocks. With a large flock, some individuals may be more familiar with an area than others, and the experienced birds will show the others the best places for feeding and roosting. Since the robins are all moving together, no individual will know all the best places, and most of the flock members will both help and benefit from flock membership.

    Q. Do all the robins leave at the same time?

    A. No. Immatures hatched in the first nesting of a season will be ready to join migratory flocks before their parents or later siblings. Adults who nest three or more times in a season won’t be ready as quickly as those who nest only twice.

    Q. Where do robins spend the winter?

    A. Some robins retreat all the way to southern Texas and Florida, but others winter as far north as they can find berries. So robins have an enormous winter range.

    Q. Many neotropical migrants have a fairly regular migration from year to year. Why don’t robins depart at almost the identical time each spring?

    A.Neotropical migrants have no way of knowing what the weather may be like across the Gulf of Mexico when they leave their wintering grounds. Most of them migrate much later than robins and time their migration by daylength. Robins are very dependent on the availability of worms on their nesting territories. By following the 37-degree isotherm, they tend to migrate in the kind of weather systems that bring rain, snowmelt, and enough warmth to thaw the soil so worms will emerge in large numbers. But weather conditions vary enormously from one year to the next, so robin migration varies, too.

    Q. How do robins prepare for the journey north?

    A. Robins put on some fat when food supplies permit during late winter and early spring, and again in late summer and early fall, which helps fuel their flight. Adults molt, growing new body and flight feathers, in summer after they’ve finished breeding: these feathers will be fresh for fall migration, provide maximum warmth in winter, and still be in good enough condition for spring migration.

    Q. When do the robins arrive in their breeding (summer) home?

    A. Male robins arrive about the time that the average daily temperature is 37 degrees. Females arrive a few days to a couple of weeks later when both worms and mud are easy to find.

    Q. What do the robins do first upon arrival back on their territories in the spring?

    A. During fine weather, male robins spend their time singing, investigating their territories, and feeding. During cold or very wet weather, the males grow more silent and concentrate on feeding and taking shelter in thick conifer branches. Female robins investigate their territory, begin nest building, and feed when they first arrive.

    Q. Why is the timing of robin migration so important?

    A. In fall, robins wander and migrate when food is abundant but with a patchy distribution. Their migration is irregular, allowing individuals to be in a broad range so food is abundant for all. (If their migration was more uniform, too many birds would be in one area at the same time, and they would deplete the food there while other food went ignored. In spring, the timing allows them to migrate right when worms are emerging and are most conspicuous. And females return to their nesting areas when mud is available so they can start nesting almost immediately after arriving.

    Q. What do migrate robins do during bad weather?

    A. If the robins have a reliable food supply, they hunker down near it, and sometimes become very territorial, keeping other robins away. When not actively feeding, they usually hunker down in a thick coniferous tree to stay as dry, warm, and protected from wind as possible.

    Q. What are some of the hazards that robins face on their long migrations?

    A. Being in so much unfamiliar territory, robins are more vulnerable to predators during migration than when they are in a breeding territory. They only rarely hit communications towers, because they migrate by day. During the time that DDT was used, Robin deaths usually took place during migration, because DDT collected in robin fatty tissues in summer and in winter. When the birds migrated, their bodies “burned up” this fat, releasing huge amounts of the DDT into the robin’s blood.

    Q. How do humans affect robin migration?

    A. When humans used the insecticide called DDT in the U.S., many robins died during spring migration as their bodies metabolized large amounts of body fat at once–DDT from the worms robins ate all winter was stored in their fatty tissues and all released into their bloodstream at once. This was a harmful effect, and now that DDT is banned in the US, is no longer a problem for our robins. Humans also have very positive effects on migration by planting the trees that provide food and shelter for migrants.

  4. How do I tell the first robin of spring from the last robin of winter?
    A.There is no one single moment when a robin changes from a wintering bird to a migrant. 

    Winter and migratory behaviors:
    Feeding in flocks
    Eating fruit
    Flying in flocks
    Getting along peacefully

    Spring behaviors:
    Running on lawns
    Eating Worms
    Singing
    Territorial battles
    Carrying nesting materials

    The problem is, one day an individual robin may be eating worms and singing, but if a sudden ice storm or other bad weather reappears (which happens a lot in early spring) that Robin may again join a feeding flock and act like a winter or migrating bird for a few more days. So deciding whether a robin is a winter bird or a spring bird is a subjective judgment. We at Journey North consider a singing robin to be a spring bird, though we realize that sometimes surging hormones make robins sing even in winter flocks. In the majority of cases, robins really do wait to sing until they have reached their territory. Also, some singing birds in the vicinity of winter flocks are actually individuals that are not part of the flock but have already claimed their territories. We’ve noticed that after the first robin arrives in some Minnesota backyards and starts singing, large flocks of robins will still be passing through for several weeks. Local birds sometimes seem to sing more often while these flocks are present in the area as if to warn them that some territories are already taken.

 STATUS: NOT LISTED

CLASSIFICATION: BIRD

DESCRIPTION

American robins are year-round visitors to suburban and rural backyards. A male robin is often easier to identify than a female. Males have rust-colored feathers on their chest, a yellow bill, a black head, and white outlines around their eyes. They also have gray wings and backs. Female robins look similar to males, but their colors are much duller and sometimes blend together, making identification difficult. Males are also easier to identify because only male robins sing their “cheerily, cheer up” song. This song is usually heard in the early morning, before and after sunrise. Robins also sing at dusk or when it’s about to rain.

RANGE

American robins live in woodlands, suburban backyards, parks, and grasslands with shrubs. Robins can be found year-round in the continental United States, and some migrate north to spend summers in Alaska. Squirrels, snakes, and other birds have been known to eat robin eggs and chicks. Predators to adult robins include hawks, snakes, and cats.

DIET

These birds are easily spotted hopping around city parks and lawns, searching for food in flocks. They have flexible diets and will eat whatever is most readily accessible, which can be dependent on the season. Robins often depend more on insects and earthworms in the spring and consume more fruits and berries during the colder winter months. Members of the thrush family commonly hop while they forage for food. Not only are American robins in the thrush family—they’re the most widespread species of thrush in the United States.

LIFE HISTORY

Males often arrive at nesting grounds before females and will defend their territory from other males by singing or fighting. The breeding season lasts from April through July, during which time males and females form pair bonds that continue while they raise their young. Nests are usually built in trees or shrubs, or on man-made structures such as the ledges of houses, barns, or bridges.

American robins begin breeding earlier than many other birds and can have two or three sets of young in the course of one breeding season. One clutch may have three to five eggs, which incubate for roughly two weeks before hatching. Females feed and brood the chicks, and the young birds leave the nest about two weeks after hatching. However young birds remain close to their parents after leaving the nest, following them and begging for food. The young robins stay on the ground for another two weeks, until they’re able to fly well enough to venture off on their own. Robins begin breeding when they’re about one year old and usually live for two years, though one wild robin was recorded to be 14 years old.

CONSERVATION

The American robin’s population is large and appears to be increasing. The bird has an extremely big range and has been successful at adapting to human alterations of its habitat.

FUN FACT

American robins have light blue eggs that inspired the “robin’s egg blue” crayon and paint colors.

SOURCES

Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

National Audubon Society

The IUCN Red List for Threatened Species

 American Robin

Turdus migratorius

Conservation status Abundant and widespread. Because it is so familiar and occurs in places where humans live, it sometimes serves as an early warning of environmental problems, such as overuse of pesticides.
Family Thrushes
Habitat Cities, towns, lawns, farmland, forests; in winter, berry-bearing trees. Over most of the continent, summers wherever there are trees for nest sites and mud for nest material. In arid southwest, summers mainly in coniferous forest in mountains, rarely in well-watered lowland suburbs. In winter, flocks gather in wooded areas where trees or shrubs have good crops of berries.

A very familiar bird over most of North America, running and hopping on lawns with an upright stance, often nesting on porches and windowsills. The Robin’s rich caroling is among the earliest bird songs heard at dawn in spring and summer, often beginning just before first light. In fall and winter, robins may gather by the hundreds of roaming flocks, concentrating on sources of food.

Feeding Behavior

Does much foraging on the ground, running and passing on open lawns; apparently locates earthworms by sight (not, as had been suggested, by hearing them move underground). When not nesting, usually forages in flocks.

Young

Both parents feed young, though female does more. Parents very aggressive in defense of nest. Young leave the nest about 14-16 days after hatching. Male may tend the fledged young while female begins second nesting attempt. 2 broods per season, sometimes 3.

Nesting

Males arrive before females on nesting grounds and defend territories by singing, sometimes by fighting. In early stages of courtship, female may be actively pursued by one or several males. Nest: Female does most of nthe est building with some help from mthe ale. Site on ha orizontal branch of tree or shrub, usually 5-25′ above ground, rarely on the round or up to 70′ high; also nests on ledges of houses, barns, bridges. Nest is a cup of grasses, twigs, debris, worked into sa olid foundation of mud, lined with fine grasses 

 

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