A Lesson to Learn
text and photos : Norma A. Hubbard (April 2020)
While American Robins (Turdus migratorius) can and do often stay here all winter, most of us think spring has truly arrived when we see a robin. Don’t let the name fool you, American Robins are very common across Canada. Soon robins will be building nests and before we know it, little baby robins will be appearing, so here is a cautionary tale.
When I lived in the city, robins had built a nest in a tree on my front lawn. After a wind storm, there was a baby robin on the ground. My neighbours and I looked at it and decided it was too dangerous to stay on the ground as one of the many cats in the area would get it. No problem, we thought, let’s put it back into the nest. We got a ladder; we could see the other babies; we placed it ever so gently into the nest. As soon as the rescued baby touched the nest, three other babies jumped out! It was raining baby robins! It was impossible to keep all the babies in the nest, as soon as we got one in, another jumped out, or maybe it was pushed out. In the end, two baby birds remained on the ground. What I didn’t know then, but I know now, is to just leave baby birds on the ground; the parents will come to them. Robins and other birds will feed and protect their offspring, even on the ground. I saw this last year with my Eastern Bluebirds.
Female robins build the nests. Nests are built from the inside out. While the outside appears rough with twigs and branches, the inside is a smooth solid cup made with mud, which is actually worm castings and not just dirt. The female lines the mud cup with soft dry grass. Robins usually choose trees for nest sites, but most likely you have seen them on light fixtures, gutters, or other structures that provide a ledge to hold a nest. Robins may have up to three broods a season, with 3-5 eggs each; eggs are a distinctive blue which most of us will recognize. Incubation period is 12 to 14 days and two weeks after hatching, baby birds will leave the nest. Females do more of the feeding, however males might look after the first brood while females start another brood.
There is not a great deal of difference in markings between male and female robins and they are the same size, about 10 inches. Males have slightly darker red-orange breasts than females. Upper bodies of both are dark grey. Males have black heads and females have dark grey heads. Both males and females have white undertails and white crescents around the eyes and yellow bills. Juvenile birds are similar to adults, but with more speckles on the breast.
Robins eat plenty of worms and insects. It is interesting to watch as a robin dashes around on the ground, then stops suddenly and remains motionless with head tilted to one side … then swiftly its beak hits the ground and it comes up with a worm. Robins also eat chokecherries, hawthorn, dogwood, and sumac fruits, along with wild grapes and blackberries in our area. As long as there is food and not extreme cold, robins will remain, however because they are not foraging on the ground (our lawns) in winter, we are less likely to see them. I have seen them here in winter eating sumac and grapes. Robins are also aware that there are more worms available in the mornings and are known to eat worms in the morning and berries in the afternoon. Hence the term, the early bird gets the worm! After mating season, in the fall and winter, robins flock and roost together at night in trees for warmth.
The oldest robin on record was almost 14 years old, yet on average, robins live only six years. Robin populations are stable, but as with many bird species, cats are one of their main predators. As mainly ground foragers, robins become easy targets for cats. As well, since robins are foraging on lawns, they are too often exposed to pesticides, so it is important to be cautious with anything we spread on our lawns if we want to continue to have robins, the harbingers of spring, in our area. Plus, if you do see a baby robin on your lawn, please learn from me and leave it alone!