For the Birds Radio Program: Robins

Original Air Date: Oct. 31, 2003

Fall robins are every bit as fascinating as spring robins.

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In autumn, robins can appear just about anywhere with fruit trees, bird baths, or trickling water. But for some reason, not many people pay attention to them. Maybe it’s because “the first robin of spring” is such an ingrained saying that we think of robins as strictly spring birds.

It’s true that robins stop singing some time in midsummer, but they’re hardly silent in autumn. They make lots of calls, from territorial squawks when fighting over berries or a birdbath to a high-pitched “see” when a hawk passes over—a sound heard frequently in the area near Hawk Ridge in Duluth.

Robins start gathering in flocks as newly fledged young. Evenings after leaving the nest, young fledglings follow their fathers to roost areas as their mother starts incubating new eggs. These young birds learn by their fathers’ example to associate with other robins. They’re still quite vulnerable, just learning how to find their own food and figuring out how to spot predators, so they’re quiet and secretive. As berries ripen in late summer and more babies fledge and females finish raising young for the year, more robins join the flocks. During dry spells, they gravitate to birdbaths. I have two birdbaths in my backyard, and sometimes during September may have three or four robins taking baths or fighting for bathing rights, five or six others feeding on the lawn, and a dozen or more in my mountain ash and chokecherry trees. And I usually have one more robin sitting in my window bird feeder. A robin at a feeder? Robins don’t eat seeds, of course, and fruit is much fresher and tastier straight from the tree. The robins who visit my feeder are there for mealworms.

Mealworms aren’t related to worms at all—they’re grubs of a cereal-eating beetle. They’re nutritious and tasty, if you happen to be an insectivorous bird. If you happen to be a person, they’re not quite so wonderful, except for the wonderful birds they attract, including bluebirds, orioles, and even an occasional warbler. Fishermen often use them for bait, so they’re sold in small plastic cups of a dozen, 50, 100, or even 500, in bait shops, and many bird-feeding supply stores and pet shops sell them in these quantities, too. But I go through about 300 mealworms every day, so I order mine in quantity via mail order. Inside a large, lightweight box is a tightly closed, tight-weave cotton sack filled with wadded up newspapers and 10,000 mealworms—enough to last about a month. When the box comes, it’s important to transfer the mealworms from the sack to a container. I use a 5-gallon plastic bin. I pour oatmeal on the bottom, then open the bag and carefully tease off the mealworms that are near the top of the bag and put them in the bin. One-by-one, I carefully shake into the bin all the mealworms from each newspaper wad. It takes about a half hour to get all the mealworms out of the sac into the bin, and then I lightly pour more oatmeal on them to keep them well-fed and happy until they turn into lunch for my birds. Unpacking mealworms is most fun in pleasant weather, when I do it outside at the picnic table. Since I’ve been putting mealworms out in my window feeders, my chickadees and nuthatches have started recognizing me. They gather in the tree branches above me when I’m working, calling to me and occasionally even lighting on the cotton sack or on my hand while I work. They also appear the moment I crank open the window to refill the suction-cup feeders.

It took the robins a bit longer than the chickadees to notice the mealworms, but when my backyard pair finally discovered them this spring, they quickly developed a taste for them. During the nesting season, I could tell by how often they came what was happening with their family. For a while both the male and the female came two or three times every hour. When she stopped coming except once or twice a day, I knew she was incubating eggs. One day the male came, pigged out on a dozen or so mealworms, and then suddenly stopped swallowing, stuffed his beak with as many as he could fit, and flew off. That’s how I knew the eggs had hatched and he was on feeding duty. Soon the female started appearing regularly again, too. Like the male, she would eat a bunch of mealies first, then stuff her beak and fly off with food for the young.

Now, of course, it’s every robin for himself. By September, several still-spotted young robins were visiting the feeder, and at least two adults were coming each day. But by fall, robins are developing a strong taste for sweet berries and other fruits, and so even though they’re still eating mealworms, a boxful lasts a lot longer now. Some robins always remain as far north as Minnesota in winter, and in years when fruits are abundant, robins are fairly plentiful. I’m hoping that if any remain in my neck of the woods, they’ll occasionally turn up at my mealworms.

Watching robins in our own backyards in autumn is a joy, but even more splendid is the sight of them migrating along the north shore. Back when we were quantifying the songbird migration in the late 80s, we once counted over 60,000 robins on a single morning–October 1, 1988. Continent-wide, robin numbers are close to a historical high, and unlike most songbirds, they migrate by day, so huge flights like still happen. We recognize robin flocks as they fly over not by their red breast, which is shaded and hard to see, but by the white lower belly, their distinctive plumpish shape, and the way they snap their wings back in flight. And they often call in flight to clinch the identification. Birdbaths and fruit trees often entice migrating flocks down for more leisurely looks, but whether they’re coursing overhead or taking a break in our backyards, autumnal robins are a celebration of the season’s abundance and the ripening gifts of the northern forest.