Answers from the Robin Expert
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Bald Eagle
Special thanks to Laura Erickson for providing her time and expertise in responding to your questions aboutrobins.

Questions and Answers

From: Oakville, Ontario

Q: Is there an answer for the robins having different intensities of red?

A: Differences in feather color intensity are found in many species. Robins from moister, cooler areas of the continent are sometimes colored more deeply than others. Males are more intensely colored than females. This happens slowly, over time, because individuals of some colors survive longer than others ( if the color helps make males more noticeable to females or helps either sex hide from predators better).

From: Swift Current, Saskatchewan

Q: According to the map, two Robins were spotted in Regina and Saskatoon in the middle of February! Why were they back THIS early? I know they come back when there is snow on the ground, but this was too early.

A: Those birds may well have overwintered there. Individual robins often remain in the north since they feed on fruits in winter. Regina and Saskatoon are pretty extremely north for overwintering robins, but with climate change, we expect to see this sort of thing more and more often.

Q: The Robins’ scientific name is Turdus migratorius. Why was it given this scientific name?

A: Turdus is the Latin word for “thrush.” Migratorius simply means this is a migrating thrush.

Q: Are robin populations increasing or declining? If they are declining, does that mean that they will be doomed in the future?

A: Over most of their range, robins are holding steady or increasing. They seem to appreciate the same kinds of backyards many humans do, with large lawns and plenty of fruit trees. When any species is declining, it just means the numbers are growing smaller. Sometimes a species that is declining is still abundant, in no danger of being doomed. But some species that are declining are in definite danger. And some species that are increasing greatly are still in danger. Whooping Crane numbers are higher than they’ve been in over a century right now, but the species is still considered endangered because there are not yet enough to survive if some ecological disasters hit Florida and Texas, or damage the breeding grounds in Alberta and Northwest Territories.

From: Iowa

Q: I did not find where you may have stated what height the nest should be placed. Thank you.

A: Robins can place their nests at any height, from the ground to treetops. In some places they even build below ground level, in basement window wells! In trees, they usually build on thick branches, usually 5-20 feet high.

From: Toronto, Ontario

Q: I have been told that across North America, there are a number of "races" of American Robin. Apparently the robins found in Newfoundland are much darker in color. What does this mean?

A: In some geographic areas, birds benefit from being a slightly different color than birds of the same species living in other areas. Where soil is darker, birds can often blend in better if they’re a bit darker than others of their own species. Over many, many generations, this can lead to different “races” or “subspecies.” These are just ways we describe one population of a species having a characteristic different from other populations of the same species.

From: Torreon, COA

Q: I have been watching birds in Torreon, Mexico since 1983. Robins used to be native to these parts but disappeared as a nesting species in 1993 (with a single pair in an urban park), due probably to the intensive application of DDT for the cotton industry in the period 1920-1970. Are there other extirpations due to DDT, such as these, documented in other parts of the world?

A: Bald Eagles had completely stopped breeding successfully and Peregrine Falcons had been extirpated from all of North America east of the Rocky Mountains due to DDT. Robins were abundant enough that individuals living in areas that weren’t exposed to DDT could fill in spaces over the years that DDT was used; although they declined, they never were endangered in the way that birds higher in the food chain were. DDT was only in use for 30 years before it was banned in the US, or we’d most assuredly have lost many other birds.

Q: Here in Torreon, since 1993 we only have Robins as migrants. They seem to come here every other winter, coinciding with Cedar Waxwing eruptions. Do these two species migrate together? If so, why?

The two species associate together because they both eat fruit. Although the timing appears to be rhythmic (“every other winter”), it’s related to food availability.

From: Husum, Washington

Q: Are you at all concerned about bird/blade interaction and habitat destruction in relation to windpower and bird migration?

A: I’m VERY concerned about it. The best renewable energy source is solar, and I’m dismayed that so little promotion of this genuinely clean and SAFE source of energy is happening.

From: Mt. Carrol, Illinois
Mt. Carroll Elementary

Q: Do robins eat sunflower or other seeds? This is a common question when they return in early spring when little fruit is available and the worms aren't accessible.

A: Robins seldom eat seeds, but when weather is severe, sometimes a few of them are desperate enough to try eating seeds after they watch feeder birds chowing down. Sometimes, if people let their seeds get rancid (which is very bad for birds!), some robins find bugs in the wet, rotten seeds.

Q: Do some robins winter over in snowy states like here in Illinois?

A: Yes. But robins in winter don’t stay in a single spot for long — they wander about searching for new sources of still-fresh fruits.

From: Ohio
Home school

Q: Why do Robins eat worms?

A: Robins’ bodies are designed perfectly for noticing worms, pulling them out of the soil, and extracting nourishment from them. They eat other foods as well, but instinctively they are drawn to lawns and other earthworm-rich habitat and can’t help but notice and feed on worms. When I was a bird rehabber, I raised many baby robins. I never had to teach them that worms were tasty or how to find worms — they figured that out all by themselves!

Q: How do Robins take care of their babies?

A: The mother robin incubates the eggs, keeping them warm until they hatch. She must leave the nest many times each day to feed, but she hurries back so the eggs don’t cool down too much. When the eggs hatch, both parents carefully feed the babies and clean up the poop by carrying off the fecal sacs to dump in other places. When the babies get bigger and fledge (leave the nest), both parents feed them for a few days, but the mother spends less and less time with them as she builds a new nest and lays a new clutch of eggs. When she starts incubating them, the father continues caring for the first batch. He (and the mother while she’s still helping) teaches them proper wild behavior, where to search for food, how to recognize danger and what to do in dangerous situations, and how to find other robins to associate with in nighttime roosts.

Q: Do the same Robins return to the same nesting area/territory each year or do they nest in different locations each year?

A: If robins succeed in raising babies in a territory and survive till the next year, they are very likely to return. If they didn’t successfully raise babies, they often try out other territories.

From: Arlington Heights, Illinois

Q: When the robin migrates, does it travel in small groups or large groups, or does it migrate 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.

Q: Do robins from different areas in the north travel to different areas in the south? (i.e. Do robins from Massachusetts travel to Florida and Georgia, while robins from Illinois travel to Mexico and Texas?)

A: Nope. 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 with robins.

Q: How long does a robin's migratory flight usually take? Does it depend on different conditions? If so, what kind of conditions may apply?

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. Fall migration never really ends, since robins wander throughout the autumn, winter, and early spring.

From: Lenexa, Kansas

Q: Each spring we observe robins flying across the street in front of our moving car. This seems to happen just in the spring and seems to be deliberate on the part of the robins. At times it looks like the robin is waiting for a car in order to do this stunt. I haven't seen any robin get hit. Have others observed this happening? Is there a reason for this behavior?

A: It’s really just a coincidence. But since robins spend so much time on the ground and in small trees, and because right when snow is melting they gravitate to roadsides where the snow melts first, they do tend to be near roads and to fly at a height where they are easily noticed from our cars.

From: California, Kentucky

Q: I live in KY and have seen Robins here in the winter before, but never in the numbers that were here this year. I observed a very curious behavior by them. Hundreds were in the tops of the trees by my home. When I walked to the trees they all flew to the ground, ran across the ground for maybe 20-30 feet and then flew back to the top of the trees. This happened 3 times in a row every time I would walk near them. Any ideas why they would do this? Thanks, Brenda White

A: Interesting observation! They probably had two different sources of food — fruit in trees and some bugs and worms on the ground. When they were disturbed from one spot, they flew to the other, the ground, for a while. But overall, they spend more time in trees in winter than on the ground; not only are they feeding on fruit, but also they have a clearer and wider view for potential predators.

From: Bath, Ontario

Q: How many robins could populate 1 acre of manicured lawns with 3 large willow trees, 4 Medium Ash trees, 10 ft American Ivy trellis, 3 Bamboo stands (wild), 2 old wooden outbuildings, and a stone fence and Lake Ontario across the road ? Currently we have about 5 nests. Due to cats and traffic kills, the casualty rate seems to be around 60 per cent.

A: There are way too many factors to come up with a really good answer. If you have 5 nests, that means your habitat probably could support at least 10 adult robins and their babies. Robins are stressed by other robins singing too close to them, so this is probably a good estimate of the ideal maximum. Cats and cars are two things that have nothing to do with habitat quality and a lot to do with random killing. Rather than slowly eliminating a “surplus population,” cats, cars, and picture windows kill indiscriminately and excessively. So if there were anything that could be done to slow people down and to make them keep their cats indoors, your property could very likely be producing 25 or 30 new robins a year, rather than losing such a high percentage!

From: Tiger, Georgia
Rabun County Elementary School

Q: I am a 6th grader doing an independent report on Wind and animal behavior. In what ways is robin behavior, such as feeding, migrating, nesting, and feather protection, affected by winds? Thank you.

A: Robins are affected by winds in a few ways. Wind produces noise, so robins are less likely to sing on very windy days; when they do, they often sing louder. Winds are often less severe right against the ground than higher up, so robins are less affected by winds while feeding than other species of birds are. They migrate when winds are either light or tailwinds blowing from behind them. Sometimes robin nests are destroyed when branches are broken in heavy winds. When winds are strong, robins (like other birds) prefer to perch facing directly into the wind so their feathers will be pushed down rather than up.

From: Columbia, South Carolina
Heathwood Hall Episcopal School

Q: Dear Mrs. Erickson, have you seen more robins recently or have you seen more robins last Winter?

A: This winter quite a few robins stuck around in my area, but recently a LOT of robins have been milling about. We have unseasonably cold weather right now, but this followed an early spring with a big migratory influx of robins. Now the birds are still flocking and trying to find food in areas where the snow has melted, since there just isn’t much fruit left on trees.

Q: Dear Mrs Erickson, what state and city do you live in?

A: I live in Duluth, Minnesota.

From: Tulsa, Oklahoma

Q: Will a robin come back to the same nesting site year after year? I still have the old nest in the rafters of my deck from last year.

A: You should get rid of the old nest so the robin can build a new one. Sometimes parasites remain in the old nesting material. But yes, if your pair from last year successfully raised babies there, and if the female survived the winter, she’ll very likely build in the same spot this year.

Q: Will the robin re-build the old nest or make a new one? Should I take the old one down?

A: If the old nest is still there, she’ll try to build on top of it. But this isn’t good because the old one could fall apart and make the new one crash, and the old one may have little bugs that could hurt these babies. So please take the old nest down.