For the Birds Radio Program: Robins

Original Air Date: March 17, 1995

If you’re thinking of signing up for a lawn chemical program, Laura Erickson asks you to think twice. (3:26) Date verified.

Audio missing


Robins are supposedly a harbinger of spring, but so many of them toughed out the inter this year that it hasn’t been a big deal to see them this month, even if we get a late snow storm.

Robins lack the brilliance of tanagers, warblers, or even Blue Jays, but they’re handsome and dignified, and watching one running on quick legs over a lawn gives us a pleasant, homey feeling. Even more welcome than the sight of a robin is the sound of one. Their long arias are full-throated and warm, and I’m impatient for the days when I can keep the windows open all night and hear mine singing from our box elder. Recordings authentically reproduce the sound, but the reality of a flesh-and-blood robin singing his heart out is far richer.

Although most of us associate the robin with residential areas and parks, running on lawns and singing from shade trees, the robin is also a bird of the northern forest, and in the deep woods acts completely different from the friendly backyard bird we love—forest robins are secretive, furtive hermits, warily avoiding us as if they understood all about our human proclivity for toxic lawn chemicals and house cats.

Lawn chemical companies are already advertising, hoping our antipathy to dandelions will translate into money in the bank for them. Most companies fill their trucks with a combination of fertilizers and pesticides. Fertilizers percolate through to groundwater or run off into lakes and streams, contributing to eutrophication. The pesticides include herbicides to kill dandelions and other so-called weeds, and insecticides to kill grubs and cutworms. Most herbicides are toxic to robins, and insecticides give a double whammy. They kill robins directly—illiterate birds don’t pay a bit of attention to signs warning of the lawn’s toxicity, and the insecticides also kill the earthworms and grubs that robins eat. Some pesticides percolate into our groundwater and run off into our lakes and streams, though most of them break down into less toxic chemicals within a matter of days. But after two or three applications, those manicured, perfect lawns are sterile, and without earthworms to aerate the soil, the homeowner becomes more dependent on the lawn company. Oddly enough, the people who like these perfect lawns so much tend to spend a lot of time outside, and are often among the first to gripe about the dearth of robins and other songbirds.

I get a warm feeling seeing dandelions, remembering the sweet bouquets my boys gave me when they were little and I was their first love. When dandelions get too numerous, I pay the kids to pull them. But so many lawns on Peabody Street are treated now that our robins are dwindling. If people would stop treating their lawns with chemicals and instead donate the money to their favorite public radio station, the world would be a lot better for us and robins both.