For the Birds Radio Program: Robin Nest

Original Air Date: May 15, 1995 Rerun Dates: May 30, 1997

When the youngest Erickson finds a robin nest, Laura Erickson finds something to crow about. 4:16

Audio missing


Last week when nine-year-old Tommy was lying in bed gazing at the morning sky, he discovered a pair of robins building a nest right outside his window. Actually it was the female building the nest, with the male flying about now and then and, as Tommy explained it, trying to sit on her. Naturally he came up with names for them–Chuck and Sue–and he’s already named the babies: Pooky, Kooky, Crackers and Pretzel, a case of counting your eggs before they’re even laid.

Sue’s been doing all the work of nest building. So far we haven’t seen Chuck bringing her building materials, though robin males do sometimes helpfully lug in grasses or mud. Chuck seems as awkward and helpless about nest building as some human males are changing a baby. He spends a lot of time watching the procedure from our neighbor’s roof, and often bursts into song as she flies in with a beakful of grasses.

Robin nests are put together with a lot more love than skill. She plops some mud and grass in, works it a bit with her beak, and then sits in it and shapes it to her tummy. It’s not like the elaborate weaving that orioles do to construct their purse-shaped nests, so robin nests are heavier and depend for support on the branches around them, but they get the job done, and that’s all that really counts.

A robin pair usually nests twice in a northland year. The first nest is invariably made in a conifer or on a ledge with an overhanging roof, because this time of year there are no protective leaves on deciduous trees. Hardwood trees often are chosen for the second nest, which will be built sometime in late June or early July. Unless a spring is unseasonably warm, robins seldom have a third nesting this far north, but in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin they sometimes can raise three broods in a season.

There aren’t as many robins in my neighborhood as there were when we moved here in 1981. Lawn sprays exacted a heavy toll–weed-killing herbicides and cutworm-killing insecticides kill some birds outright, and the pesticides also wipe out the earthworm population. When we moved here, there were many more worms on the sidewalk after rains than there’ve been the past few years. So the robins that aren’t killed outright by toxins suffer indirectly from loss of food. Sometimes people tell me they thought chemical poisons were banned long ago, or that they thought the E.P.A. tested all pesticides before approving them. But only a handful of the worst and most persistent poisons, like D.D.T., have actually been banned. Also, many pesticides registered with the E.P.A. and used legally have never been tested–they were “grandfathered in” long ago. Newer pesticides do get some laboratory testing, but a few years ago the E.P.A. stopped requiring any field testing of chemicals before approving them.

Pesticides are treated like human beings on trial–innocent until proven guilty. A few years ago I received two baby robins from a woman who said the other two other babies and the mother were dead in the nest and the father was found dead under the nest tree. She was mystified about what could have happened to them. When I asked if anyone in the neighborhood had sprayed their lawns lately, she said her lawn had been sprayed just the day before, but the company assured her that the chemicals they use were EPA approved and proven safe. She clearly trusted the lawn care company’s word more than mine, and left just as mystified as she came. The little robins died within a couple of days, but at least those pesky dandelions were gone for good, at least until the next spraying. I hope the people in my neighborhood leave their lawns alone so my Tommy can watch Chuck and Sue raise their little ones in peace and health.