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Conservation

Q. What is the American robin's population status?

A. The American robin is recorded in every state of the U.S. 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 there were when the colonists first came to America?

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 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. 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. Learn the facts about cats and birds, and about the American Bird Conservancy's Cats Indoors Program.
  • 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 include bonking into windows, car strikes, and electrocution, etc.)
  • Thorns, which sometimes get stuck on robin feathers. One bird bander once caught a robin with a large thorn stuck in its throat.

Q. How can we help robins?

A. We can keep our cats indoors and encourage our neighbors to, set out nest platforms for robins, stop using insecticides in our lawn sprays and only spot spray weed killers rather than spraying the entire lawn. We can also 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. We can set out bird baths. And we can even set out "robin feeders."

Q. How can we build a nest platform for robins?

A. See Carrol Henderson's Robin Nest Platform Plans

Q. What are some good trees and shrubs we can plant that will provide food for robins?

A. Try to choose species that are 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

Winter berries include:

  • Bittersweet
  • Hackberry
  • Hawthorn
  • Red cedar
  • Crabapple
  • Highbush cranberry

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, especially, mealworms. One Journey North correspondent set up a small birdbath heater in a dogfood dish in his yard, and filled it with food rather than water, and had robins visiting it all winter. He filled the feeder with fruit and also with mealworms. Look at the Photo of Winter Robin Feeder. You can also offer mealworms in plastic dishes or acrylic window feeders. To order them, try a local petshop, bird feeding store, Rainbow Mealworms or Grubco.


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