American Robin – Harbinger of Spring

The American Robin (aka “Robin Redbreast”) is perhaps America’s best-known songbird, easily recognized by its brick-red underparts and dark gray head, back, wings, and tail. A common backyard bird, the melodious songs of males given at the break of dawn bring back memories of childhood security and one’s newfound excitement for life.

Interestingly, the “American Robin” was named by English settlers because it reminded them of their “robin” back home, the “European Robin,” a smaller species with an orange-red breast (see pic below right). The robin’s scientific name, Turdus migratorius, identifies it as a thrush (Turdus) that moves around a lot (migratorius).

While many associate robins with yard and garden settings, they are actually found in a variety of habitats and regions, including eastern forests, western mountains, and northern areas. Robins range north into Alaska where males can be heard singing their telltale songs in remote wilderness … quite in contrast to backyards in suburban areas.

Robins are often referred to as a “harbingers of spring” because of their sudden appearance in yard and garden settings in late winter, well before most other migrant songbirds arrive (although Red-winged Blackbirds may show up about the same time). While robins in northern areas do indeed migrate southward in the winter, those in more southerly locations may only migrate short distances, forming winter flocks that gather in nighttime roosts of up to a hundred thousand or more individuals (but they don’t necessarily stay in one place; flocks typically move from place to place in search of abundant fruit supplies). No wonder robins show up in our yards so early in spring … they usually don’t have very far to fly!

Upon arrival on their breeding grounds, males immediately begin vying for territories. Not only do they sing excitedly to establish boundaries, they also threaten and even fight one another. Territorial behavior can often be observed on lawns when groups are feeding, with one robin running at another with its head lowered. By the time the crocuses and daffodils are blooming, most males have secured their territories and found mates.

American Robin - nest with eggs © Marie ReadFemales construct a nest of coarse grasses and mud, lined with a layer of fine grasses and often placed near human habitation. Nests are rarely more than fifteen feet above the ground. Four bright blue eggs are typically laid. The female is in charge of incubation and the young hatch in about 14 days. Both adults tend the young, primarily feeding them earthworms and other soft invertebrates such as beetle grubs. The young are fledged in about 14 days. Altogether, a pair may raise as many as many three broods through their nesting season, which extends from spring into late summer.

Robins noisily attack intruders near the nest, diving and snapping their bills in response to cats and dogs or birds such as jays and crows. Once you become familiar with the robin’s alarm calls, you can “keep an ear out” and know exactly when a threat has appeared. Then it’s time to run outdoors and scare the would-be predator away (assuming, of course, that you choose to help the robins).

Robins are well-known for their habit of hunting for earthworms on residential lawns. When searching for worms, a robin often tilts its head to the side, not to listen for worm movements, but rather to use one eye to detect the subtle movements of a worm at or near the surface of the soil (explanation: because their eyes are located on the sides of their head, they presumably have difficulty looking straight ahead at objects that are very close by). Once a worm is spotted, the robin suddenly pounces with a stab of the bill, an action that often meets with success as the robin stretches the worm upwards to dislodge it from the ground.

In the fall, robins form flocks that may be observed feeding in berry-laden trees and shrubs. As winter unfolds, flocks join one another as they home-in on winter roosting areas where berries and other fruits will be abundant enough to tide them over until the following spring.

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American Robin eating berry (Winterberry Holly) © Marie Read

American Robin eating berry

American Robin range map by Lang Elliott

range map

American Robin catching earthworm - © Marie Read

catching earthworm

American Robin - adult feeding young © Marie Read

adult feeding young

European Robin - Pierre Selim, Wikimedia Commons

European Robin

American Robin Voice Examples:

Robins make a variety of distinctive sounds that are easy to learn. The following examples highlight the robin’s most characteristic sounds and their meanings, when known.

1. “Typical Song” is a lilting series of wavered, whistled phrases, with groups of phrases being separated by distinct pauses. “Cheerily, cheerio, cheeriup, cheerily,” the robin seems to say, before pausing and singing again. Males sing as a way of proclaiming their ownership of a territorial. Song also helps attract a mate and maintain the pair bond:

2. A special “Dawn Song” is given by the male at first light. It is a long-continued series of song-phrases (some of which are soft, high-pitched warbles) delivered without any long pauses between. It’s function is unclear:

3. The “Whinny Call” is a sudden outburst of notes sounding like the whinny of a tiny horse. It is thought to indicate mild excitement:

4. “Peek and Tut Calls” are given when a predator (including a human) comes near a nest. Peeks are sharp and emphatic, while tuts are softer and more throaty:

5. A high-pitched “Seeee Call,” signifying intense alarm, is given in the presence of aerial predators such as hawks or owls:

6. The “Zeee-uh Call” is commonly given during autumn and winter, as robins gather in flocks and move from place to place. Here are three zeeuh calls, given along with a single tut call and several soft whinnies:

Note: Sound recordings © Lang Elliott – All Rights Reserved.

American Robin - male singing © Lang ElliottThe Robin is the One

The robin is the one
That interrupts the morn
With hurried, few, express reports
When March is scarcely on.

The robin is the one
That overflows the noon
With her cherubic quantity,
An April but begun.

The robin is the one
That speechless from her nest
Submits that home and certainty
And sanctity are best.

Emily Dickinson

What You Can Do:

When it comes to observing robins, there are so many possibilities that it’s hard to know where to begin. When they arrive from migration in late winter or early spring, noisy groups descend upon yards and gardens, looking for old berries and other fruit to eat. It’s great fun to simply sit on your porch (or on a stump or chair in your yard) and watch all the “goings-ons”.

Be aware that your local robins may not come from that far away. Except in the more northern parts of the range, robins may actually spend the winter nearby or only a short distance southward, forming massive winter roosts. If you or a friend (or someone in your local bird club) knows where a roost is located, by all means go take a look (and listen), to get a sense of the sheer magnitude of a winter congregation.

Not long after their arrival in spring, males begin singing their melodious songs from treetops as they set up territories and look for mates. Watch for social interactions and pay attention to the various calls … whinnies, peeks, tuts, and more … given under a variety of circumstances. You may observe males fighting one another for optimal territories, or else males chasing after females in hopes of securing a mate.

Listen especially for the “high seeeee” alarm calls given in the presence of aerial predators such as hawks. If you hear this unique sound, start scanning the trees nearby and in hopes of catching sight of a perched hawk … a definite threat from the point of view of the robins.

Nests can often be discovered by listening. When you pass close to a nest (or when a dog or cat approaches), the parents erupt with peek and tut alarm calls. Almost invariably, the nest can be found nearby. If you’re fortunate, a robin will nest in full view, constructing the nest in a shrub or small tree outside your window, or even on your porch rafters. Then you’ll be able to observe the female making the cup-shaped mud interior and then covering it with a grassy shag.

Before you know it, the bright blue eggs will be laid, the young will be hatched, and parents will be bringing in earthworms, grubs, and other invertebrate food to be stuffed into the bright yellow-orange gaping mouths of the young. Watch also for parents removing the white “fecal sacs” of their young and then flying some distance from the nest before dropping the sacs on the ground (occasionally they even swallow the fecal sacs … yuck!). Robins nest up to three times in a season, so you’ll get plenty of chances to observe nesting behavior before they’re done for the year.

Ever watched a robin catch an earthworm? Quite often they will tilt their head to the side before striking, as if listening for subtle earthworm movements. Well, they aren’t “listening”, they’re actually “watching”. Because their eyes are on the sides of their heads, they get the best view by aiming one eye toward their prey, thus improving the accuracy of their strike.

Autumn is basically a repeat performance of spring. Robins gather in noisy groups and can be observed feeding on berries and other fruits as they gather their energy for their migration southward (or to massive roosts that may be closer than you think).

American Robin – tall vertical (shutterstock.com)

Notes from the Videographers:

portrait of Lang Elliott among maple leavesLang Elliott: I gathered most of my video footage at the Cornell Plantations Arboretum, where robins are abundant and quite used to people. The biggest problem at that location has to do with sound. There is a noisy highway running along one boundary and a rushing river along another. There is also considerable noise created by visitors and from the Plantations staff running chainsaws and other equipment. As a result, all video clips featuring sound-making birds had lousy sound and needed to be “voiced-over,” using clean robin recordings that are properly synched with the bill movements.

Luckily, I had a large sound collection to draw from … recordings I had gathered over the last twenty years. Also, in the case of the singing male at the beginning and end of the video (note that he is still in his winter plumage), I actually went back and recorded that particular male using a big parabolic reflector microphone for much cleaner sound. This allowed me to properly synch his particular song phrases with his bill movements. This was a challenging process, but I’m quite happy with the result.

Marie Read photoMarie Read: With my forays into videography, I’m taking to another level the same fascination with bird behavior that’s been present throughout my still photography career—showing birds going about their daily lives, giving us glimpses of a world we might have missed on casual observation.

I captured the video sequence of a robin feeding its young in my backyard using a tripod-mounted camera with a short focal length lens looking down into the nest. Once positioned, I set the camera to record and I left the scene to allow the adult robins to approach the nest undisturbed. I wanted to minimize disturbance, so in order to accustom the birds to the equipment, I left a dummy camera on a tripod near the nest for a couple of weeks beginning during incubation.

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  • A well-known and much-loved songbird, the American Robin is easily observed in backyard settings. Common and widespread throughout much of North America, ranging northward to Alaska. Eats invertebrates (earthworms, insects, snails, etc.) and fruits of many types.
  • The male’s song is easy to recognize. It is composed of wavering whistled phrases delivered in groups … “cheerily, cheerio, cheeriup, cheerily,” the robin seems to say, before pausing and singing again.
  • Named by English settlers who noticed a resemblance to their “robin” back home, the European Robin.
  • Known as a “harbinger of spring” because noisy flocks typically show up in people’s yards in late winter, well before most other migrating songbirds are seen or heard.
  • During the spring and summer, the sexes are fairly easy to tell apart. The male’s breast is a solid brick-red, while the female’s is pale orange. The male’s body is generally dark gray and his head can be nearly black. In contrast, the female’s body and head is a lighter gray or gray-brown.
  • Nest constructed by female of mud and grass, usually with 15 feet of the ground, and often hear human habitations. Four blue eggs are typically laid. The female incubates for about 14 days, at which time hatching occurs. Both sexes feed the young, mostly bringing them earthworms, beetle grubs, and other soft invertebrate prey. The young fledge in about 14 days. A pair may raise up to three broods through the spring and summer breeding season.
  • Robins defend the area around their nest; they give excited peek and tut alarm calls and may dive at cats and dogs or predatory songbirds such as jays and crows.
  • When searching for earthworms on mowed lawns, robins cock their head sideways in order to see worm movements more clearly with one eye.
  • When they spot an aerial predator nearby, such as a hawk or owl, robins react by giving high-pitched seeee calls.
  • Robins gather in flocks in the autumn and then migrate to lower elevations or latitudes in search of berries and fruits. Winter roosts can be enormous, containing up to a quarter-million birds. While some overwinter in Mexico, the majority overwinter in the United States, often fairly near to their summer haunts.

Video Metadata
American Robin – Harbinger of Spring
Title
American Robin – Harbinger of Spring
Description

An immersive video celebrating the American Robin, and featuring excellent footage of singing males, eating an earthworm, nest building, feeding young, and much more ... all with excellent sound! Brought to you by old-miracle.mystagingwebsite.com. Produced by Lang Elliott. Video and sound © Lang Elliott.

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Comments

  1. So the Robins are lip syncing! Karaoke Robins! I never suspected as I watched and listened. This was my first look at this web page and I loved it. Thanks Lang and Marie.

    • Glad you liked it Leni! Yes, those robins are necessarily lip-synched, but I do think I did a very good job of it … we strive to provide world class audio here at old-miracle.mystagingwebsite.com!

  2. claudius iacob says:

    Great footage and info Elliot, congratulation for this outstanding production!

  3. Susan Schacter says:

    So enjoyed watching this Robin operetta! Look forward to watching and listening to more.

  4. Jason Kessler says:

    Excellent video, wonderful sound, thorough and welcome text. A great post about one of my favorite birds. Thanks.

    • We’re trying to produce world-class learning aids for nature immersion and education. The real problem is just how long it takes to do a good job on one creature … how on earth will we find the time to celebrate hundreds of our native jewels? … OK, I know … just take one step at a time …

      • Rosamond Lincoln-Day says:

        Good luck! Thank you for sharing this excellent video. “The robin eating the worm” was very interesting, especially since I’ve never actually seen a robin do that. The recording of their different voices and what they mean is great. “One step at a time” and believing in the journey itself continues to benefit all of us.

  5. susan schacter says:

    Backyard birds give me so much pleasure. Every spring Ican’t wait to get my first sighting of the new resident robin. Your video is a pure delight. It is a robin operetta! Look forward to watching and reading more on your website.

  6. Every moment delights in this, wonderful, it lights the soul. These avian plainsong performers are charming. When a whinney erupts suddenly I want to know what good joke Robin just heard or thought up. Do tell, Robin!

  7. Lisa Rainsong says:

    Lang and Marie, this is absolutely exquisite! It feels like a honor to watch a Robin up this close – to see and hear every detail. I can’t imagine that anyone could watch and listen to this video and still say, “Oh, it’s just a Robin.” Your video captures and reveals this bird’s incredible beauty and spirit, and it’s a reminder that there is so much to cherish even in our “common” birds.

    The collection of recordings and life history information is a valuable resource – I really appreciate all the different calls that you’ve included.

    • Thanks Lisa. As you’ve implied, the point of the robin video is to “reveal the beauty and spirit” of such a commonplace bird. No easy task, I assure you!

      I particularly love the two striking head-and-upper-body closeups near the beginning, where I can see the world reflected in the robin’s eyes. You don’t get close views like this through binoculars, nor with most photographs. Video, however, is able to bring you that level of experience, portrayed in living motion.

  8. Wow, so much to take in here. Thanks so much Lang and Marie!

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