For the Birds Radio Program: Robins
There’s something about robins that is homey and comfortable. Most mornings they aren’t singing anymore—parents are busy with fledglings and re-nesting, but every now and then males still burst into song, in a burst of hormonal energy, or maybe just joie de vivre. And hearing their song drifting in the window as we awaken in the morning is a good way to start the day.
Adult males and females robins both are dealing with fledglings right now. It doesn’t take long for the young to become independent, but in the weeks that they remain with the parents, the adults are busy almost every moment. The babies learn their basic life skills from their parents. Adult robins make a high pitched “see” call when a hawk passes over, and the young instinctively pay attention. Adults use their keen vision to peer down little holes, and pull juicy worms out, and the young pay attention. Adults pull fruits from trees and the babies pay attention—this morning I watched an adult female and three babies pulling ripe cherries from my husband’s cherry tree, and I was so fascinated watching the babies figuring it all out that I didn’t have the heart to chase them off. It’s so easy to spot a big, ripe cherry that robins usually take a big bite and turn their head or hop up a branch and take a big bite out of another one. Which is certainly unfortunately from a human standpoint, because they damage more cherries than seems necessary. But overall, it’s a small price for that lovely wakeup they give us in return.
By the time the females get busy incubating one last brood, the first babies are just about ready to be on their own. They stick together, watching each other’s adventures as well as puzzling through new adventures on their own. Many fledglings are full grown now, even their tail feathers full length, but they’re still recognizable by their spotted breasts and babyish face that still has a yellow gape patch where their upper and lower mandibles meet. This gape gives robin fledglings a confused, lost expression. At night the fledglings and the adult males gather in small groups, but as the summer progresses, these groups will grow as more babies join them. By August, adult females, freed from the nighttime nest watch, will also join these roosts. It’s only in spring and early summer that robins are territorial. The rest of the year this is a flocking species. They feed in flocks, roost in flocks, and travel in flocks. On October 1, 1988, I counted over 96,000 birds migrating along the north shore from the Lakewood Pumping Station, and over 60,000 of them were robins. That was certainly an exceptional day, but it gives us an idea of just how many robins there are, and just how massive their flocks can be.
Robins are still running on lawns early in the morning, when earthworms are close to the surface, but the rest of the day they’re more often seen in berry shrubs and trees, and at bird baths. We may hear their songs for a week or two more, but we’ll be having more and more song-less days until by August robin song is just a warm spring memory. We’ll still hear what sounds to us like friendly chatter—actually this is their mild way of expressing annoyance at our presence. And I will be listening for the high pitched calls that tell their fledglings, and savvy people, to look up because there might be a hawk flying overhead. Here in the northland we can find robins in the dead of winter if we know where to look, and we can hear them singing full throttle in spring and early summer. But right now when summer is at its peak and robin numbers the largest they’ll be all year, their homey, friendly, gluttonous ways remind us that Thanksgiving can come much more often than just once a year.