Answers from the American Robin Expert
Teaching Suggestions

Special thanks to ornithologist Laura Erickson for providing her time and expertise in responding to your questions.

From: Guelph, Ontario

Q: What kind of food can I put out for robins and where would you put it? Will they eat dried fruit like blueberries, cherries etc? Last year they arrived here in late February and most fruit on my bushes and trees was gone in a couple weeks. I felt so sorry for them when there was much natural fruit to eat. Thanks Laura

A: Few robins have discovered feeders as a source of food, because so few people set out the kinds of foods robins eat. So when an appropriate feeder is set up, it's not always easy for robins to discover it. But when a robin does figure it out, its mate quickly learns, and during migration usually whole flocks will quickly appear.

You can offer robins earthworms, meal worms, raisins and other dried berries and fruits, and fresh or frozen berries, cherries, and other fruits.

One way of offering these foods is in a bird bath (without the water, of course!) When I set out fruits or meal worms for my backyard robins, I put them in a bowl in a window feeder (see photo below).

Credit: Laura Erickson

From: Sorrento, British Columbia

Q: Every year I hear stories of robins repeatedly hitting the same window until they are seriously injured or even die. Why do robins do this and what can we do to effectively stop them?

A: Robins do this when they see their reflection in the window. The reflection looks exactly like another robin. Normally when a robin invades another robin's territory, all the territory holder needs to do is to fluff up its head feathers and give a warning call. Sometimes the territory holder will sing a bit. If the intruder doesn't get out, the territory owner will finally fly at it to chase it away. This always works.

But a reflection of a robin doesn't make any of the proper responses. When the territory holding robin raises its head feathers, so does the reflection! When the territory holding robin flies at it, the reflection heads straight for it! And so the poor territorial robin doesn't know what to do, and keeps flying at the reflection, over and over. Sometimes this kills the robin, sometimes hurts it, and always keeps it from doing the normal things it needs to do to survive and raise a family.

Credit: Laura Erickson

What can we do to stop this? We can break the reflection by soaping the window or covering it with paper (on the outside!). Sometimes putting helium balloons in the area where the robin is shadowboxing will help. Most birds are afraid of helium balloons, but sometimes a robin is so intent on driving out its perceived intruder that it ignores the balloons. We can also put window screening on the OUTSIDE of the window, a few inches out from the window itself. This sometimes distorts the reflection enough to send the robin away, and even when it doesn't, the robin is far less likely to hurt itself in a window with this kind of screening.

From: Voorhies Elementary School
Bakersfield, California

Q: In our area there are many species of birds, including the American Robin, and LOTS of them, not just a few. The question has come up, "Where do robins (and other birds) go to die? We don't find lots of dead birds around, so we wonder where they are.

A: People who are very sick usually die in a hospital or their own bed. Robins and other birds don't have a special place to go when they're sick-they have to live outside and deal with the same dangers when they're sick that they do when they're well. Sick birds can't escape danger very well-they aren't very alert and can't fly fast, so they're usually quickly killed by predators, who eat them. It's a rare situation when birds die faster than predators can pick them up.

Q. Who are the natural rivals of the American Robin, and how do these rivals affect the lifestyle of the robin?

A: The word "rivals" can mean different things. Robins don't usually compete with other species of birds for nest sites or food, so in a sense they don't have rivals except for other robins!

But some animals, such as cats, squirrels, foxes, rats, crows, Blue Jays, hawks and owls, eat adult or baby robins or their eggs. Robins must spend a lot of their day watching and listening for these dangers, and must alert their family members if one is spotted. So they can never really take a break. Also, to make it less likely that mammals can sniff out their nests, parent robins carry away their babys' poop in fecal sacs. Also, they migrate and spend the winter in flocks to make it easier to spot predators.

From: St. Mary
Cincinnati, Ohio

Q: Where did the Robin get its name?

A: In the 1600s and 1700s, when English settlers first came to American, they were often homesick and particularly missed their little 'robin redbreast,' a backyard songbird a bit smaller and brighter than our robin. But the rusty breast on our American bird reminded many of them of their own robin, and our birds readily came to backyards, too, so that's how they named our bird. The word 'robin' is a nickname for the human name 'Robert.' Many people call little birds 'Dickey birds,' a nickname for the human name 'Richard.' I guess people think it's appropriate to give human nicknames to birds that live in areas with a lot of humans!

Q: How can you tell if a robin is a boy or a girl?

A: Telling male from female in robins is trickier than telling some species of birds apart, but not nearly as hard as telling male and female Blue Jays apart. Male robins are more brightly colored than females, with a blacker head and tail, rustier breast, and more noticeable black and white streaking of the throat. The first robins to return in spring are males, so comparing the robins in an early flock won't help. But when the females return, if you see a pair, it should be easy to tell which is which.

Q: What is the life span of a Robin?

A: The oldest wild, banded robin that we know about lived to be 13 years and 11 months old. In captivity, robins have lived over 17 years. Only about 25% of wild robins that hatch survive until their first birthday, but after surviving their first year, with two migrations and learning all the tricks of living in the summer and winter ranges, a robin's life expectancy goes up. The average age of survival is about 2.

From: Mercerville, New Jersey

Q: I live by a small wooded area near Trenton New Jersey. I have robins all year round. I would like to know what I can do to help the robins survive our winters. I have heated birdbaths which they enjoy, but I don't know what to do about feeding them. I have feeders for other birds but the robins do not eat the seed. If I toss raisins on the ground the squirrels grab them up. In the spring and summer they eat strawberry preserves from the oriole feeders but the preserves would freeze if put out in the winter. Any suggestions on how I can help my winter robins? Thank You.

A: The best thing you can do to help wintering robins is to plant native fruit trees and shrubs that will provide them with fresh, wild food. To feed them in winter, one Journey North friend set out fruit and mealworms in a heated birdbath filled with sphagnum moss rather than water.

From: Sappington School, LEAP program
St. Louis, Missouri

Q: How long does it take for a robin to migrate from Texas to Canada?

A: That all depends! Sometimes robins can fly several hundred miles in a day, and during spring, when their urge to set up a territory and raise a family is strong, they can cover that distance is less than a week. But if the weather gets bad, they stop somewhere along the way, sometimes for a week or longer.

Q: How old are robins when they leave their parents?

A: Baby robins fledge (leave the nest) when they are about 13 days old. Both parents take care of them for a few days, but when the mother starts incubating new eggs, the father takes over child care responsibilities with the old babies. He takes the fledglings to roost at night with other robins, and by the time the new eggs hatch, about three weeks after the older babies fledged, those older babies are on their own-at this point, they're about 5 weeks old.

From: Joyce Middle School
Woburn, Massachusetts

Q: Do robins mate with only one partner for the season? If so, how do they recognize each other? Ross Borelli

Robins recognize each other the same way we humans recognize each other-by how they look, sound, and act. Very often a pair remains together during the entire breeding season, but if something happens to one bird, the other may find a new mate. In my own yard, when my male robin was killed by a hawk, the female robin had a new mate the next day!

Q: Are robins born knowing all 6 vocalizations at birth or do the adults teach them the sounds? Robert McGuine

A: Researchers need a lot more information about how robins learn their calls. We do know that males from the same area share many of the same whistles in their songs, so they probably learn some of the notes and patterns from hearing one another. And we know that the high-pitched call that robins make when they see a hawk is quite similar to the hawk warning call made by other species, so that one is probably instinctive. Most robin calls probably have an instinctive, genetic component which is fine-tuned during the weeks that young robins remain with their parents and then during the fall and winter when they associate in flocks with other robins.

Q: Do robins migrate with any other bird species? Ms. Cerullo

A: When I used to count migrating songbirds flying along the shore of Lake Superior, I noticed that robin flocks hardly ever included other species. Robins are fast, steady fliers, and move along at their own speed. But the timing of their biggest migrations in spring is similar to the timing of Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, and Killdeer migration, and the timing of fall migration coincides with many other species, including many warblers and blackbirds, so even if the flocks remain distinct, they're often moving along the same migratory pathways during the same hours as other species. And when they land, robins may feed in the same fields or the same fruit trees as other birds.

From: Cayuga Heights Elementary School
Ithaca, New York

Q: How long can they fly before they must stop to rest and where do they sleep?

A: The distance robins can fly in a single stretch isn't well studied, but they can fly pretty far compared to some other birds. When I studied songbird migration, I noticed that some species, such as Blue Jays and warblers, dropped down in the trees to feed and rest often, while migrating flocks of robins kept flying from the time I saw them on one horizon all the way overhead to the other horizon. They use up body fat very quickly during migratory flights, which is evidence that they can cover long distances in a day.

Except for female robins while they are incubating eggs or babies, robins sleep in roosts-stands of sheltering trees-with other robins.

Q: What is the population of the American robin in North America and where do most of them live?

A: To figure out the human population in the U.S. and Canada, our countries conduct censuses. A person at each house or apartment must fill out a form saying exactly how many people live at that address, what the ages are, and other information like that. Robins don't fill out forms, and don't all collect in a single place for us to count them, so we have to make careful scientific guesses to figure out their population. Based on the Breeding Bird Survey, the Christmas Bird Count, and other surveys, we know that the American Robin population is steady or increasing in most places. Using these surveys and other data, the Partners in Flight North American Landbird Conservation Plan currently estimates the North American robin population to be about 320,000,000. Since the U.S. human population is about 293,000,000, at this point robins still outnumber us.

Where do robins live? They are most abundant during the breeding season in moist open habitats, especially those with short grass or crops abundant with earthworms, such as suburban lawns and farmland. They nest in every continental state and in Canada up to Hudson Bay, though they're most abundant in the eastern and central part of their range. They also winter in every state and in southwestern Canada down into Mexico, though their largest numbers in winter tend to be in the southern states.

Laura Erickson
For the Birds