The soft rays of April sun release the Northern United States from winter’s bite. It is now that we see the return of a familiar sight to our parks and gardens – the American Robin. As the early tulips turn their sleepy face towards the gentle warmth of the spring sun, so the robin appears, singing his welcoming song.
I grew up in Great Britain, where I knew of the feisty Robin as a small brown songbird, with an orange belly, that is depicted on millions of Christmas cards each year. Early settlers arriving from Europe associated the fire-belly of the larger American bird with the much-loved Robin from home, and named it accordingly. The American robin is quite different from its European cousin, being more comparable to the European Song thrush in size and behaviour, but with that unmistakable terracotta breast. The bird is beautiful, and despite living in the United States for four years, my head is turned every time I see one dancing across a manicured lawn.
It is often the case with photographers; the more common a bird, the less photos we take of them. My plan for this year was to find a robin nest to photograph, and I was in luck! Not only did I find a nest, but I did so with minimal effort, in a place that allowed for lazy photography; outside my local coffee shop.
Nesting starts in late April or early May in my New Jersey town. The early weeks of May, before the trees are fully dressed, is a great time to find nests under construction. The nest is a cup of dried grass with occasional twigs, and even a splash of paper or plastic. The cup is double lined, firstly with a skim of binding mud. This smooth mud cup is then softened with a lining of fine grass or hair. Nests can be found in unusual places, but a good place to start looking is in the tree fork where a sturdy branch meets the trunk, level with the lower foliage. In my town the preferred height appears to be around 10 feet off the ground.
American Robin eggs are blue, and about the size of a large grape. The first sign of a nearby robin nest is often the pale blue half shells that have been discarded by the hen, after hatching.
When the eggs have hatched the robins are at their most active, as they work hard to feed hungry mouths. The quick feet of the parents seem to tap an irresistible rhythm on the grass. Peering through green blades with cocked heads, they easily pull worms from the safety of their muddy homes. This is a dangerous time for the robin family as crows, squirrels and grackles search the trees for an eggy protein shot, or even a little fresh meat. These opportunist predators watch my local robins gathering food to see where they take it. Despite the best efforts of the Common grackles, my robins safely hatched their eggs and pumped food down wobbling necks of hungry chicks.
In no time at all, the helpless pink chicks become young fluff-ball robins. I watched my stump-tailed chicks hopping along the ground behind their parents, or wobbling on thin branches as they learned how to grip with their toes. Now feral cats, dogs, rats, birds of prey and the well meanings hands of small children become a risk. If you see a robin on the ground be certain that there is a parent bird nearby, caring for it. If someone picks it up, then just put it down in a safe place, in the same area. It is a myth that the parent will reject a baby if handled by a human. We all stand a better chance in life under the watchful eye of diligent parents and robins are no different.
The fluff-balls will soon grow tails and lose the wispy fluff, but this will not stop them begging for food for a little longer than they ought to. It is common to see a young bird, fully capable of feeding itself, still begging from mum and dad. Soon they will be feeding themselves, and will roost with groups of adult males, while the hen gets to work for round two of egg laying, often in the same nest. As I write this article, my local coffee shop hen has settled back on to the nest for her second brood.
As spring turns to summer and the midday sun hammers down on to irrigated lawns, the robin needs to drink and keep cool. A great way to attract them to your property is to put fresh water down each day. I watch them enjoying the bird bath in Bryant Park and the streams that trickle through Central Park, Manhattan. The bird below was taking advantage of a water feature in the San Francisco Botanical Gardens.
During the bitter cold winter months, the American robin seems to disappear. In truth, robins tend to remain in their home range year-round. In winter, they flock, often away from urban areas, giving the impression that they have migrated. Frozen lawns no longer give up a bounty of worms, so the robin switches to a diet of fruit and berries. For this they must leave the towns and head for the wild. I discovered this for myself during a winter drive to Cape May, where each roadside tree had its own group of robins, squabbling over the best fruit.
The American robin is listed as having a conservation status of Least Concern. There are around 310 million of them distributed across North America. This common urban bird is a gift for people who can’t get to wild places. It provides a chance for all of us to experience the full cycle of avian life, through a bird that ushers spring in to the world.
Join the conversation below. Have you had American Robins nesting in the garden? What unusual nesting sites have you found robins in? Maybe you have been out to look for robins after reading this post? 👇👇
Connect others with wildlife by sharing this post on social media and, if you enjoyed this post, please follow Incidental Naturalist.