For the Birds Radio Program: Spring Robins
One of my favorite elements of spring is bird music. And I don’t think it’s ever more lovely or conspicuous than in the wee small hours of the morning. Well before the sky hints any intention to grow bright in the east, robins start singing. And as lovely as normal robin songs are, this early morning song is even more wonderful, sung at a rapid rate with more energy.
Robins are such a welcome sight and sound that we virtually always notice when they appear in spring, though we tend to sleep through their pre-dawn singing. Males put so much energy into song production before light because they hunt earthworms visually, and worms are closest to the surface first thing in the morning. The early bird needs to get not only worms but also prime real estate, which is defended through territorial songs. By singing long before light, robins can focus on getting a good breakfast after that burst of tuneful activity. Throughout the rest of the day, they’ll sing and feed on and off, but neither with the intensity of early morning.
Female robins also capitalize on the abundance of worms early in the morning. They work on nest-building later in the day, and when they finally lay their eggs, do that at mid-morning, too, in contrast to most female songbirds, who lay their eggs at first light. Those robins who nest in trees rather than on eaves and other man-made structures tend to choose conifers for their first nest of the season, which affords the babies more protection from the elements before deciduous trees leaf out. Robins tend to nest where they have at least some good, pliable mud available. During dry spells, you can help your robins by pouring a bit of water on the ground in a bare spot to provide a source of mud.
Weather can be chancy in April, making life difficult for robins. Fortunately, they’re extremely hardy—many individuals spend the entire winter in Canada and the northern states, and the birds are big and study enough that they don’t find cold temperatures difficult to survive as long as they have a source of food. Although their preferred spring food is earthworms and insects, they can resort to old crabapples and other fruits still dangling from trees if a sudden snowfall covers up and freezes the ground. Occasionally people teach their backyard robins to accept food from a feeder. In my own yard, robins occasionally come to a bowl set in a window platform feeder for mealworms and fruits. In summer, when I keep plenty of mealworms on hand, my male comes frequently for them. When he first flies in, he pigs out, stuffing mealworms into his mouth and swallowing them as fast as he can. Then suddenly he sharply lifts his head as if a lightbulb were going on and starts packing mealworms into his beak. I’ve seen my male carry at least 15 mealworms off to the nest to feed his babies at one time.
Mealworms are probably the best food to offer as birds start to raise their young. It’s imperative for baby songbirds to get plenty of animal protein for growth. Unfortunately, sometimes adult robins get fixated on an easy food source and start feeding their babies nothing but that. One year when we had a huge mulberry crop in Madison, Wisconsin, one of my elementary students found a baby robin that had such poorly-developed bones that it couldn’t stand or move. So make sure you don’t encourage your robins to feed their growing babies inappropriate food by offering fruits in summer. Many birds enjoy eating jelly. It spoils very quickly, and also gets dangerously sticky, so never put out more than tiny amounts of it at a time, and stop offering it once your robins’ eggs hatch so the babies won’t get too many carbs and not enough protein.
If you’re interested in watching your robins nesting, you might want to construct a nest platform for them. Construction plans and other information are available at http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/robin/NestBox.html
Robins were selected as the state bird of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Connecticut for good reason. They provide us an abundance of good cheer at winter’s end, when we need it most. Taking small steps to make their lives easier can enrich our lives as well.