For the Birds Radio Program: Robins

Original Air Date: Aug. 10, 2002 (estimated date)

Robins from further north are starting to join local birds in mountain ash trees.

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Last week I started noticing robins in my neighborhood. Not the first robins of spring, nor the family groups of summer. Suddenly there are migratory flocks in my mountain ash tree and skulking in the dogwoods in the back of the yard. My car flushes them from the side of the road in the early morning twilight. The adults and young birds that spent the summer here are still about, but their numbers have been augmented with robins from farther north that are migrating through.

We’re still early in the migratory season-the biggest numbers are yet to come. We always get a huge push in late September and early October. On October 1, 1988, for example, at the Lakewood Pumping Station, up the shore a bit from the outskirts of Duluth, I counted 62,707 robins in 5 hours, and I missed a great many because when I was counting endless streams overhead, more endless streams were coursing past up along Moose Mountain, and when I was counting those, other streams were moving up above. 1988 was an exceptional year for many reasons, but even in a normal year we have days when many thousands of robins fly along the north shore.

Before the first killing frosts, berries are sweet and delicious, just desserts of summer for waxwings and robins to gorge on. But after the sap stops running, the sugars in the berries are no longer replenished, and the process of fermentation begins. Little by little the sugars are converted to alcohol. Birds have a better sense of smell than ornithologists once believed, and on still, warm days they can detect berries that have gone bad, but on cold days the odors don’t carry and robins can eat dangerous amounts of fermented berries, becoming intoxicated.

Fortunately, in August we don’t usually have to face the problem of alcohol toxicity. Late summer robins are plump and healthy, their wings powerful and swift to evade hawks and other predators with simple speed even in the bewilderingly unfamiliar terrain they must pass through on the way to their wintering grounds. Robins fly at speeds of between 25 and 36 miles per hour. Of course, life in the fast lane causes other problems-during the 1950s, one returned to one backyard two summers in a row with a stick projecting from its back-presumably hit at high speed in flight. And dangers can beset robins even when they’re not flying anywhere–a bird bander in Amsterdam, New York caught one that had a large thorn stuck in its throat. Despite all the hazards they face, at least one wild banded robin survived 11 years 8 months.

The robin’s relentlessly cheerful song, lovely plumage, and endearing habits have made it the state bird of Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And even where it doesn’t officially represent a state, robins are one of the truly beloved birds, recognized by everyone and kindly regarded by just about everyone. Of course, those individuals that bonk relentlessly against window panes, trying to drive their reflection off their territory, and the ones that sing until two or three in the morning, and then resume where they left off at 4:45, aren’t quite so beloved. But by mid-August, they’re not singing in the middle of the night anymore and their dwindling hormones have diminished their territorial drive, leaving nothing left but their pleasant company.

We sense a subtle restlessness in these migrants that leaves us melancholy at the thought of approaching winter and departing friends. But robins soften those sad feelings conjured up by autumn-even as we grieve their departure, we rest assured that they will return with the spring, the rhythms of the year pounded out in their beating wings and the flowing cadence of their song.