The secret life of American Robins

Robins eat more than just worms! Photo by Dendroica cerulea, CC

Robins eat more than just worms! Photo by Dendroica cerulea, CC


As the weather warms, I’ve been seeing dozens of robins hopping along my lawn. Even though I’ve grown up around robins my whole life, I realized that didn’t know much about them. In fact, I think I only knew three things:

1) They have a red breast
2) They eat worms
3) They lay blue eggs

This would never do. I decided to learn more about the American Robin. I asked one the female robins in the vicinity to tell me about her life, straight from the bird’s beak, so to speak.

Me: Tell me about your childhood.

Merle: There’s not much to tell. I was born in a nest with two other siblings. I was constantly hungry. I needed food every 15 minutes from sunrise to sunset. I certainly ran my parents ragged!

Me: Tell me more about your siblings.

Merle: Well, neither of them survived to adulthood. One was eaten by a crow and the other was eaten a few days later by a squirrel. It was sad at the time, but you get used to it, considering that only about 20% of chicks ever become adults. I was one of the lucky ones. There are lots of animals out there that love to sink their teeth into a robin. Circle of life and all that.

Me: When did you leave the nest?

Merle: About two weeks after I hatched. At that point my parents started getting babies on the brain. They kicked me out so they could lay a new batch of eggs in my nest. They were big into recycling. It did take Mom 5 days to build that nest, after all.

Me: Sounds rough! 14 days is pretty young, isn’t it?

Merle: I guess. I could fly, so that was a start. My parents were pretty good about bringing me food for an additional four weeks after I officially left the nest. Then I was really on my own.

Me: Did it get lonely?

Merle: Not really. I joined a huge roost with a bunch of other robins. We would hang out, forage and sleep together. I spent most of the fall and winter with them, eating berries and dried fruit hanging from bushes.

Me: Wait a minute, I thought robins only ate worms?

Merle: Where would we get worms in the winter? We eat fruit in the winter. I’ve even seen my friends drunk if they’ve eaten too many honeysuckle berries! For the record, during the spring and summer I generally eat insects, earthworms and snails in the morning and fruit in the afternoon.

Me: But I never see robins in the winter! Where are you hiding?

Merle: Well we aren’t hopping along your lawns, that’s for sure. Sometimes we migrate, but if there is still food in our breeding area we stick around. We hang out in large groups in trees, barns, or under bridges. Once spring comes males start staking out their territory and courting females. That’s when you start to see us again.

Me: Why does your behaviour change so drastically in the spring?

Merle: Breeding requires a lot of energy. A pair’s territory is basically a pantry where they can constantly collect food to feed their growing family. It’s the male’s job to defend this territory, flying at intruders to scare them away or dive-bombing them if necessary.

Me: Why do robins sometimes run into my window?

Merle: If it’s a male, they may see their reflection as an intruder and try to scare them away. Usually they are a bit stunned after hitting a window, but recover quickly. If you want to prevent it from happening, there are many ways you can make your windows visible to birds. Check them out at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

Me: If the males defend the territory, what are your breeding responsibilities?

Merle: It is my job to find a good location for the nest, usually in a tree branch, light fixture or gutter. I also build the nest, pushing grass into cup shape using the wrist of one of my wings. Then I reinforce it with twigs and mud. I may have two to three clutches of eggs in this nest in one year, if there’s enough food available.

Me: Last question, what is your favorite thing to sing?

Merle: Goodness, females don’t sing! Only the males do that, to attract us during mating season. The crooners get you every time.

There you have it, straight from the bird herself! Hopefully you’ll see the robins in the park a little differently now. And speaking of parks, free guided neighborhood tours are taking place all around the world next weekend on May 3 and 4. Called Jane’s Walks after urbanist Jane Jacobs, they are a great way to see your community from a different perspective. Find one in your city  Hope to see you out there!


Cornell Lab of Ornithology. American Robin.

Encyclopedia Britannica. robin.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Living With Wildlife: Robins.


About Amelia

I am a recent biology graduate and current journalism student exploring career opportunities in science communications.

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April 2014


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