For the Birds Radio Program: Robin Drama: Part I

Original Air Date: July 15, 2019

A listener wrote to Laura about some robins terrorizing her family.

Duration: 4′59″


Now that we’re settling into July, most birds are quieting down for the season. Male robins can afford the time to sing when their mate is incubating the first brood of eggs and even when the nestlings are tiny. As they grow, they need more food, but the male can still sing first thing in the morning before it’s light enough to see earthworms and other food items yet.

The young leave the nest when they’re about 13 days old, and both parents attend to them for a few days. The female spends part of those days repairing the nest or building a new one, and then lays an egg a day for 3 or 4 more days. She won’t start sitting on them until she has a full clutch. At that point she transfers all her attention to incubating as the male continues to feed and educate the fledglings. It takes 12–14 days for the new eggs to hatch. The original fledglings will be independent in time for Dad to start feeding the new hatchlings. Small wonder his singing dissipates by July.

Understanding that basic rhythmic pattern can enhance our enjoyment of our backyard robins, for those of us who love these homey birds. Understanding how it works can also give hope for people confronted with two issues: robins shadowboxing with their reflection in windows, and robins who built their nest on a house, deck, or garage and start attacking people who come anywhere near. When we know how many days robins are engaging in each behavior, we can at least look forward to a time when the bad behavior will end.

Last week, I got an email from a woman in Toronto with the subject line, “Robins are terrifying me!” Before I even clicked on it, I knew what it would be about. This spring, robins build a nest under her family’s deck near a child’s swing suspended beneath the same deck. A few weeks ago, the robin, probably disturbed by the child swinging, must have dislodged an egg, which cracked open. Since then, the parent robins, and possibly some others in the neighborhood, go ballistic whenever they see any people in the backyard. Naturally, the letter writer is afraid to let her daughter play outside while the robins are nesting there, and doesn’t know what to do.

At the point the egg was broken, there were at most 2 weeks and at a minimum 1 or 2 days before the remaining eggs hatched. They usually hatch out close together. Then there is another 2 weeks before the nestlings fledge. When you know where in this cycle the robins are, you can block entry back to the nest after the last baby fledges, so you won’t have to deal with the robins nesting so close to the child’s swing again. Wearing a wide-brim hat to protect yourself from being pecked, you can use a broomstick with a mirror attached to the end to peek into a high nest to see where in the cycle the eggs or chicks are. The more alert you are to chicks fledging, the quicker you can block access when the nest is empty, before the mother has a chance to start laying new eggs in the nest.

There is not much else that can be done when family members are either frightened of nesting birds or sympathetic enough to want to avoid them for the duration. It’s hard to lose the use of a garage, porch, or other place in our own backyard when robins have appropriated that space for themselves. Being proactive in spring before robins set up housekeeping, by blocking access to porch lights, rafters, and other structures they may like, is important. If you like robins except when they attack you or your children, you can set up a robin nest platform, available from many bird-feeding stores or homemade from plans like those in Carrol Henderson’s excellent Woodworking for Wildlife (and linked on my blog), somewhere on your house or garage where the robins won’t be a bother. If robins use that, they’ll be territorial enough to keep other robins from nesting where you don’t want them.

Tomorrow I’ll deal with an entirely different problem facing another Canadian with a backyard robin story.