Waiting for Buddy
A Tale of a Returning Robin
By Julie Brophy

"Buddy?... Buddy...?"

Well, we called and called through the spring and summer of 2001, but no sign of him. The neighbors heard us and thought we were calling for a dog. What they didn't know is that Buddy is a robin!

If Buddy had returned, it would have been the fourth year in a row that he spent the spring and summer months in our backyard and at our door! (One of the kids in the neighborhood named him Buddy.)

Three Years With Buddy
We first noticed Buddy in the spring of 1998. He returned on March 30 in spring 1999. Spring 2000 arrived a little earlier, and so did Buddy — on March 11.

We'd seen many male robins in the area that March, but none seemed interested in the currants, raisins, chopped apples, or mealworms we put out in the yard for them. Even with a short-lived cover of new snow on the ground, they were not the least bit interested in food right then. Instead, they were actively establishing and defending their territory. This is usually one of the first signs that male robins are beginning to break off from their groups and defend their own areas.

So, if Buddy was out there, he'd been too busy to stop by until Saturday March 11! We first observed him standing outside our front door on the driveway. We knew it was Buddy because of his familiar markings and also because he did not fly away when we opened the door, like most other birds would. Instead, he watched us from a close but safe distance. And sure enough, when we called his name, he came running towards us, looking to see if we had served up any food.

Just like clockwork each morning and evening, Buddy showed up on the porch outside the kitchen and looked inside the window to see if we were there. And if we were not in the kitchen, he'd fly to the front door to see if we were there. He never got too close to us, which is good because we wanted him to remain cautious in his surroundings. In fact, when we put out mealworms for him, he flew up to a favorite branch, and then flew back down to enjoy the worms after we had moved away.

Keeping a Watchful Eye
Buddy's behavior appeared to be slightly different later in the season. Early on, he was very restless when he came to eat. He didn't take any extra time to linger, and instead spent just enough time to eat the mealworms. Sometimes he even interrupted his meal to chase off another male robin.

Very often, he looked to the sky. That time of year, hawks are frequent visitors as they migrate through. Perhaps he kept a watchful eye for hawks.

The next thing Buddy watched for (and we did too) was the arrival of the first female robins in the area. We reported the first females to Journey North. We also watched to see how long it would take Buddy to find a mate, or for the mate to find him. In spring 1999, Buddy even brought his mate nearby to share in the mealworms.

Is That You, Buddy?
How did we know it was really Buddy returning in 1999 and 2000? Don't most robins look alike? In 1999, we began calling for Buddy and suddenly, plop! There he was on branch in a nearby tree, calling and chattering as if to say, "Oh, I remember you! So glad to see you; do you have anything for me to eat?" We were just as surprised to see him as we think HE was to see US!

Buddy did have some subtle differences in coloration and he behaved differently from the other resident robins. For instance, he would fly to our deck or outside a particular window to try to get our attention. If we left the kitchen and went upstairs, he would often fly to the upstairs level and look in on us through the windows.

Most people think robins all look pretty much alike. Can you tell the robins in your backyard apart? Look for subtle variations in markings on the beak, breast, abdomen, or tail. Does the coloration of your robins vary? Does their behavior vary?

Where Had He Been All Winter?
Have you ever wondered where your robins went for the winter? Ornithologists try to answer this by putting numbered leg bands on some robins. If they're lucky, eventually someone finds some of these banded birds again and reports where they are found. We have compiled some earlier robin banding data for each state/province. Take a look and see where your robins might have gone:

MacDonald's, Burger King, or Munchy Mealworms?
We've learned a lot by observing Buddy. We could always tell when his young had hatched and had begun eating solid food. Instead of only eating a few mealworms himself each visit, Buddy would load his beak with as many mealworms as he could possibly hold. Then, like a cargo plane, he would deliver them to the nest for the young robins! How many mealworms do you think a robin can hold in its beak?

In 1999, Buddy helped raise two broods of young. He even brought Buddy Jr. to dine on mealworms too.

It seems that robins aren't the only ones who love mealworms. Other birds do too, and even chipmunks and toads stop by for a wiggly bite.

Still Calling
"Buddy?, Buddy?" Buddy never returned in 2001, but we'll keep calling for him. If he ever comes back we'll be sure to let you know right away!

Discussion and Journaling Questions

  • What do you think it would feel like to have to look around all day for fear a hawk might swoop down on you at any moment?
  • Why do you think Buddy's feeding habits changed from his early arrival to later in the season?
  • What general things can you infer from this story about robin behavior?
  • Robins look pretty much the same for their entire adult lives. How do you think Buddy recognized Julie when she wore different clothes every day?

National Science Education Standards

  • Organisms have basic needs. For example, animals need air, water and food; plants require air, water, nutrients, and light.
  • The behavior of individual organisms is influenced by internal cues (such as hunger) and by external cues (such as a change in the environment).
  • An organism's behavior patterns are related to the nature of that organism's environment, including the kinds and number of other organisms present, the availability of food and resources, and the physical characteristics of the environment.
  • Behavior is one kind of response an organism can make to an internal or environmental stimulus.