After an exceptionally mild winter, I noted my first robin sighting about three weeks ago. During that initial observation, scores of robins had arrived in my yard. Spring is a time of year when the migratory American robin can be found scouring the earth in search of protein. Sipping on my coffee, wave after wave of robins hopped through the yard, stopping to cock their head, as if listening for worms in the soil below. Scratching and digging through my leaf mulch, these red-breasted thrushes, found quite a feast.
Our American Robin suffers from an unfortunate Latin/scientific name coincidence- Turdus migratorius. Thumbing through various literature, ornithologists with an impeccably matter-of-fact tone describe the origin of Turdus as Latin for “thrush.”
Though my first sighting of a robin was in late February, most likely they’ve been here all winter. According to Douglas Stotz with the Chicago Field Museum, robins are migratory birds. In fact, fifteen years ago most American robins were flying south for the winter. With increasingly warmer winters, robins are now year-round Illinois residents. Cornell’s Journey North map reveals that robins were sighted in Southern Canada on January 24.
American robins are one of the first songbirds to nest in the spring. The male’s song is what we often hear on these crisp mornings warding off competing males while drawing in female mates. The female builds her nest and lays her beautiful blue eggs, while the male watches over and provides food during the incubation (fourteen days) and fledgling stage (about two weeks).
American robin chicks are born completely featherless, blind and totally dependent on their mother and father to regulate their body temperature, food, and protection. Only about one-quarter of baby robins survive the summer. Predators abound seeking eggs or newly hatched nestlings. Housecats have become a problematic non-native predator of songbirds. Nest predators slither, walk, and fly and range from snakes to raccoons to jays and many others.
With such a high mortality rate, it is remarkable how the American Robin has succeeded in establishing across the entire North American continent. Robins can rear two to three broods per season and adults live an average lifespan of two years.
At this point, my son joined me at the breakfast table, watching the late-winter spectacle unfold of birds digging up various invertebrates from our yard and carrying them around in their beaks (including the signature earthworm). Upon pointing out the birds picking their way through our yard were robins, his eye lit up. “Like Robin from the movie?” (Referencing his growing Batman knowledge) “Yes,” I explain, “they could be considered protectors in the bird world.”
Being so large in comparison to other songbirds, the American Robin can produce one of the loudest songs. Not only do robins use their songs to attract mates, but they also have songs to sound the alarm of an approaching predator.
Biologists have found that robin songs are so pronounced, that other species of birds, squirrels, and deer respond to their alarm call. In a way, robins act as a scout. Foraging on the open ground leaves these birds open to many predators, so they must be vigilant. Often when trouble arrives, robins are the first to sound the alarm. Signaling to other wildlife to be on the lookout, run/fly away, or a call to action to thwart a stalking housecat or sneaky snake.
While the song of the American Robin is music to our winter ears, these birds carry far more than a cheery tune. Their warnings protect and rally those being preyed upon by cunning predators. The American Robin, our backyard superhero.