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Critter Column: Robins

by Jack Perkins

Robins are the proverbial “early bird”. The Robin has to get up early to catch the worm.  The worms in our lawns only come out at night. Ever notice them on the sidewalk while you’re out for an early morning walk?  By then they are headed somewhere moist where they can burrow during the day. When there is a bit of light and the worm hasn’t gone back down, that’s when the Robins come.  Robins are known for being the first bird we hear in the morning and the last bird we hear at nightfall.

Our neighborhood has a healthy population of North American Robins and they are year round residents. Their feeding habits change throughout the year, preferring worms and other insects during the warm months and fruit and berries in fall and winter.

Right now (January) you can see them in the Magnolia trees prying red berries from the seed pods or darting from branch to branch on Velarde Street where the mature Camphor trees line both sides of the street and join their branches high up over head. Robins go after the small black berries the Camphor trees produce this time of year.  The red Pyracantha berries are a favorite too (considered poisonous to humans if eaten in large quantities). Robins eat seeds and berries produced by all of our trees and shrubs.

The Robin has an extendible esophagus they can stuff with extra fruits and berries after their stomach is full. This gets them through our cold winter nights.  But as the weather warms sometimes the berries begin to ferment and that extra room inside a Robin only enhances the fermentation process. The bird gets drunk!  If drunk enough they forget how to fly and stumble off under a shrub to sleep it off. I found a stoned Robin in my front yard last year and took him in for the night. He slept it off in a covered shoebox, flying off the next morning, too late to catch the worm. Probably went back to the berries to continue his bender.

During the breeding season, which is Spring and Summer, they mainly go for insects. There are more bugs around this time of year, and the baby birds can digest bugs more easily than seeds. At night, during the breeding season, the males roost in groups while the females stay on the eggs. During Fall and Winter most Robins roost in groups, some very large, and they forage in groups too.   I’ve seen flocks of hundreds of Robins at Landel’s School, standing still in the playing field, their heads cocked waiting for the slightest movement. Then they dart a few feet and grab some juicy insect morsel. Where there is one there are usually many more.

The American Robin has a black head, white eye-rings, yellow bill, black and white streaked throat, grey back, and a brick-red breast.  The young first year Robins don’t have a red breast, but rather black spots on their breast. However, by their second Fall, they look just like the adults.

Robins are open nesters and have a high mortality rate. Maybe 25% of their young survive their first year.  Their eggs and nestlings are feasted upon by crows, jays, opossums, squirrels… When they fledge (leave the nest), they spend a few days mostly on the ground and get wiped out by cats (bells don’t make a difference) and dogs. It takes several days for them to be able to fly proficiently and get good at getting away.

They have a lifetime to cope with the Cooper’s and Sharp Shinned hawks, it never ends.

If you find a fledgling in your yard it is best to just leave it alone. Its parents will be near by and you’ll see them bring it food.

Even with everything trying to eat them, we have a healthy population of Robins in our neighborhood. The American Robin has a large repertoire of cheery songs and calls. They are nice to have around.

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