Answers from the Robin Expert
Spring 2010

Teaching Suggestions

Special thanks to Laura Erickson for providing her time and expertise in responding to your questions! Look for answers to questions like these:

  • How did American robins get their name?
  • Do robins return to the same place where they were raised?
  • Why do robins migrate north in the spring? Why don't they just stay in the south?

Laura Erickson

Questions and Answers

From: Virginia

Q: How did the American Robins get their name?

A: When English settlers came to North America, some of them felt very homesick. They particularly missed the friendly little "robin red-breast" that lives in many English gardens. We don't have any birds related to that species here in America, but our robin has a red breast and spends time in our backyards, so they named it for the robins in England that they missed so much.

From: Sasketchewan

Q: What is the strangest food you have seen a robin eat?

A: I've personally observed lots of robins feeding on worms, insects, and fruits in the wild, and on mealworms and fruits in feeders. A very few times I've seen robins eating bits of suet and seeds in feeders, but these birds were very stressed during bad weather.

Q: I have heard of robins eating minnows. Is this true?

A: Although fish-eating robins are extremely rare, There are indeed a handful of documented observations of robins doing this along shores of lakes and streams.

Q: Awhile back I had a flock of robins during a cold spell and it started to snow. I knew they couldn't find any worms and felt so bad for them. I placed a platform feeder on the ground and filled it with apples and bananas. Are bananas good for the robins? Are they safe for them? They did end up cleaning up the platform feeder.

A: American Robins don't encounter fruiting banana plants anywhere in their natural range, but their relatives in Central America do, and the related birds do eat bananas. I'm sure bananas are a perfectly nutritious diet for robins. Bananas do soften and decay quickly. What I usually put out in winter is frozen berries (raspberries, cut-up strawberries, and blueberries), since they're going to freeze quickly anyway. Don't feel bad that these robins didn't have any earthworms--their natural winter diet, even in Florida, is much higher in fruit than insects or worms.

From: New York

Q: I have often watched Robins catching worms. They seem to cock their head, stand still and then grab a worm from the ground. Are they listening for something or do they feel the worms underground?

A: You're a good observer! When robins cock their heads, they're actually using one eye to look for worms in their underground tunnels. (The other eye is focused above, so they can spot predators, too!) You can read about some experiments that a scientist performed to figure out how robins get their food at this link.

From Massachusetts

Q: I see lots of Robins in the late winter in central Massachusetts, often congregating in groups of 20 or more around crab apple trees. Is this a new phenomenon, because the old myth used to be that Robins arrive in early Spring?

A: 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. There have always been flocks of them wintering in the northeast, but in past decades these flocks have been smaller and fewer. As more and more people have planted ornamental fruit trees in cities and towns, robins have increased in numbers as measured by the Breeding Bird Survey and other projects. This increase in numbers, combined with abundant frruit trees and generally milder temperatures in winter, apparently have increased the size and number of flocks wintering in northern states.

From: Washington

Q: Why would Robins come here from a good winter home anyway? Why don't they just stay south? I can see why they don't live here in winter, too much snow and no food for them. I feed allot of other migratory and also native birds though the winter esp the chickadee and nuthatches.

A: Robins are very often stressed by heat, and areas where robins winter often have 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.

Q: Why has it been so long since any American Robins were banded or recovered for Washington state? I would like to know where my Robins come from to here each spring. I live about 50mi south of Canada next to the Idaho border and we do not have any native or territorial Robins as far as I know. I have not seen any in 30 yrs I have lived on the ranch here in the winter. They have not arrived yet to the ranch either. We get quite a few too as we have a lot of Service berry, hawthorne, Thimbleberry, wild strawberry and other berry and fruits and lots of earthworms.

A: What report were you reading? Robins are banded at migration banding stations, and by researchers trying to follow them. But very few robins banded as nestlings reappear near their parents' territory in following years, and so far fewer studies specifically tracking their movements are conducted than on species whose young return to the same area year after year. Even so, between 1955 and 2004, 488,337 robins, almost a half million, have been banded in the United States. It's hard to believe not one has been banded in Washington!

From: Pennsylvania

Q: Why are the robin's eggs blue?

A: Robin eggs are blue because they belong to the thrush family--many thrushes (including bluebirds) lay blue eggs. Other birds that lay blue or greenish blue eggs are starlings, cormorants, and herons. Most birds with open nests lay eggs that have some color, which makes them harder for predators to spot than pure white eggs would be. The egg shell 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 near her "cloaca."

Q: Why are the two birds hatched and the other eggs not?

A: Sometimes a robin lays an egg that isn't fertile. This means that there is no chick developing inside, and the egg can't hatch, the same as the eggs we buy in stores weren't fertilized so can't hatch. Also, once in a while the chick developing inside an egg gets too cold or wet and ends up dying before it hatches.

Q: Why does the robin fly into the gutter?

A: Sometimes when leaves collect in a gutter, they get soaked and insects lay their eggs in the wet mess. Once the eggs hatch, robins can get food from there.

From: Pennsylvania

Q: How does a robin survive when reaching Pennsylvania at the beginning of February? I saw robins during the snowstorms and there are where no earthworms or bugs seen to eat and any vegetation ie: berries etc were covered with snow.

A: Berries and other fruits grow on branches of trees that stay well above the snow line. In winter, robins can find mountain ash, crabapples, juniper, and other berries, even in northern Pennsylvania in February.

From: Illinois

Q: I spotted a white throated robin last year while vacationing in Michigan. I'm wondering how common is the white throated variety?

A: All robins have a whitish or white throat that is usually streaked with dark gray or black. Those missing the dark streaks are "partial albinos." This is rare, but because robins are so closely associated with people and stay out in the open a lot, we're more likely to notice robins with albinism and other genetic oddities than we are to notice these things in most species.

Q: Are there other varieties of robins?

A: We usually use the word "varieties" when referring to breeds of animals--that is, types of animals that we ourselves change from how they were in the natural world by selectively breeding ones that have traits we want more of. This is how we get dogs, cats, and the different colors of budgies or parakeets. Robins are wild birds, and there is only one variety of American Robin. But there are other species related to American Robins. There are more than 65 species in the same genus as the American Robin, though none of them have "robin" in their name. These include the Clay-colored Thrush of Central America and Mexico (which sometimes makes it up to southern Texas) and the Fieldfare and Eurasian Blackbird of Europe.

From: Arizona

Q: I am baffled by our dear little birds. We live above 6000 ft. so it gets pretty cold, even in Arizona. We have rarely seen robins since we moved here seven years ago. This fall, into the winter, we had at least two or three dozen! They seemed more interested in water than food. I could not believe it. They left after our first measurable snow. We have no fruit trees, nothing that bears berries unless they were finding them in the woods surrounding our home. I wonder if they will be back! Marlene Kubiak

A: They were probably feeding in the woods, and visiting you for the water. Robins naturally wander, and after they use up all the berries in one spot simply move on in search of another place. You're lucky they happened to pass over the woods right when there was food present to hold them for a few weeks.

From: Quebec

Q: I used to love robins, but... We have a cottage in the country. Two years ago, on returning there in the spring, we found our balcony railing covered with robin droppings, and I mean covered. We cleaned up as best we could, but the following weekend, we had the same situation hit us. During the weekend, we shooed the bird away, but while we were absent during the week, he returned and left his gifts. We presume this was his way of marking his territory, but I've never heard anyone describe such a thing. Our next door neighbor had another robin visit him, and take over one of his wooden Adirondack chairs, which by summer was unusable from all the droppings. How do we discourage this kind of behavior? Have tried cayenne pepper, garlic powder, plastic ribbons. Nothing works. I'd love to love robins again. Right now, it's not easy to do so!

A: Robins don't eat anything that you could cover with cayenne pepper or garlic, so I'm not surprised those didn't work. Plastic ribbons aren't very scary for them, either. Robins usually are scared of helium balloons. If I had a treasured chair or areas where I just did not want them around, I'd set up a balloon bouquet on strings floating about right where the robin wanted to be--that almost always works. If the robin is attracted to your balcony by its own reflection in your windows, covering them on the outside with newspaper during the weekdays when you're gone would solve that problem. There are special "bird spikes" you can use on railings and posts to keep birds from perching there, but these can be expensive and unsightly, so aren't a good choice where you actually want to spend time.

From: Indiana

Q: Do robins come back towards spring to the same area that they were raised in? I raised a robin years ago. I was his mom after his real mom was killed by a hawk. It was a great experience but also heartbreaking too when it was time to let him go. I took him to my Mom's property about 13 miles from my home because it was safer. I do believe he came back to my house for years because I could get a certain robin to eat out of my hand from my kitchen window. For the past 3 years I have been able to get robins to eat out of my hand hesitantly. I don't think they particularly like me but they do love raisons. Have pictures if you are interested. Any information you have would be appreciated. Denise Norton

A: Young robins usually spread out and do not return to where they were raised, but it's quite possible the one who "knew" you was indeed returning. It's very difficult to induce a wild robin to come to our hands unless it observes other robins doing this. So it's more likely that "your" robin is returning than that a wild robin figured this out on its own. It's wonderful that you managed to keep this robin alive and thriving, but I hope our readers don't get the wrong idea about this. It is actually against state and federal laws to raise robins or other wild birds in captivity without legal permits. It's wonderful that your robin thrived and was successfully released, but this doesn't happen in a large percentage of cases. Usually robins don't get a proper mix of nutrition, and even when they do, people don't usually give the robin its freedom soon enough, and don't keep feeding the bird after setting it free, to give it time and space to learn how to get its own food. When people find a baby bird that can't be returned to the nest (and remember, BOTH robin parents feed and raise the young, so if one parent is killed the other still can successfully raise the babies alone!) it's wisest and kindest to call a licensed wildlife rehabber. You can find the one closest to you in the Wildlife Rehabilitators Directory. Hand feeding wild birds can be very fun and satisfying for us humans, but many ornithologists, conservationists, and others discourage this because, when a bird becomes tame for one person, it often becomes tame around other people, including those who might very well harm it.

From: Kentucky

Q: We had a robin nest on our covered porch last spring, we left the nest in place when the babies fledged. Should we remove the nest now or do robins return to nest in the same place year to year? It's still in pretty good shape.

A: They very often do return to the same nest, but mud can get kind of crumbly over winter, so an old robin nest might not be a good thing to reuse. I would set it near a good mud puddle so the robin can take bits of mud and grass from it. Don't worry about the robin not returning. If she picked the spot and had success last year, and survived the winter, she's as likely to return to the exact same spot whether or not her nest is still there.