Answers from the Robin Expert
Teaching Suggestions

Bald Eagle
Special thanks to Laura Erickson for providing her time and expertise in responding to your questions about robins.

Questions and Answers

From: Minnesota

I have heard that the darker headed robins are males. Is that true, or are they just a variation?

A: When you look at the breeding robins from a given area, the darker, more brightly-colored ones are the males—and the difference is most dramatic in the head area. But robins from some cool regions with high relative humidity, such as the Pacific Northwest and Newfoundland, are more colorful than robins from other regions, and robins from hot, arid areas are paler, and so during winter and migration it can be tricky to be certain about individual birds.

Q. Last spring, on an overcast, drizzly afternoon in Minnesota, I saw hundreds of robins on the ground and in crab apple trees. I had never seen this behavior before. Please explain what was going on. It was fascinating to watch.

A: You happened to catch a migratory flock. The biggest movements of robins usually follow the 37 degree isotherm, but depending on local conditions, on some days they may or may not be able to get enough worms. Then they return to their winter fruit diet. Your robins may have been getting some earthworms on your lawn, but were also taking old crab apples.

From: Connecticut

Q: We have been observing a robin in a fermented berry tree for the past couple of months. He remains there from 7:00 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. My question is: are these birds aggressive by nature? Our bird fights with any bird who appears on the scene. Apparently, other species work around the times of the robin's presence. Squirrels are sure not to approach the tree when the robin is not around.

A: Just as with humans, robins have a lot of individual variation in their aggression levels. The majority of robins can share fruit resources without much squabbling, but some individuals get stressed and aggressive when they see others eating in their area. Aggressiveness in general can be very helpful in establishing and defending a breeding territory, but it can also be a problem because birds with higher-than-average levels of aggressiveness don't spend as much time finding food for their nestlings. It all averages out in the end.

From: New York

Q: Do you think the Robins would use a wood "Robin Platform" for their spring nest? We have had instances where the Robins begin building their nests on out electrical boxes. Last year we had to clear their foundations, because we wouldn't want them to get hurt or be in the way. I was hoping a platform would divert their attention and maybe assist in their building.

A: Yes, robins do sometimes nest on platforms.

Q: Other than worms and other bugs, do Robins eat berries? Do they eat mealworms?

A: Yes, robins do eat lots of berries, which they find on shrubs and trees. Once in a while a robin will learn to take berries from a feeding station, but overall feeders are not part of their search pattern for food. Robins DO eat mealworms, and if you set out worms in a dish robins are more likely to discover them, because of their movements, than they are to realize that the berries in a feeder are food. Once robins do start taking mealworms, though, they may also taste and start taking fruits from the same feeder.

Q: How do Robins find Worms?

A: Robins find their worms visually.

From: Indiana

Q: Several robins were seen yesterday in Westfield, Indiana eating red berries on a small tree. What tree, I wonder, might that have been, so that I can plant some.

A: It might be winterberry, a native plant that provides nutritious berries for robins.

From: Michigan

Q: I live in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan. I've observed Robin migration for many years and have noticed that they seem to travel north to areas around the Great Lakes and arrive much sooner to other northern areas then they arrive here. Robins seem to migrate to the center of the state and then their progress is slowed yet they seem to migate all around the Great Lakes at the same time. Is there something about the Great Lakes that keeps the Robins from arriving here in the same time frame as other northern areas?

A: The Great Lakes are huge, and it takes more energy to change the temperature of water than of land. So the shorelines have milder temperatures than inland during the worst of winter, meaning they have a bigger supply of berries. Also, when birds reach the South Shore of Lake Superior, they are reluctant to head north, across the lake, so they follow the shoreline, concentrating their numbers compared to inland places. And although there are temperature swings during spring along the shoreline, there are even wider ones away from the lake. So overall birds become more concentrated more quickly along the shore than inland.

From: Illinois

Q: On 3/2/2008 I saw several robins. It was 75 degrees. The very next day, and now for 6 days straight, the ground has had snow and ice and temperatures right at freezing. What do they eat since now they have made their way back here for the spring and at this moment, 24 hours later there aren't any worms?

A: Robins have been migrating in very early spring for thousands of years. When conditions are perfect, spring rains and floods bring an abundant supply of earthworms to the soil's surface. And when conditions are horrible, with snow and ice and freezing temperatures, they can get leftover fruits from various trees and shrubs. It's hardly a perfect diet, but does provide enough calories to tide them over until the weather improves.

From: Wisconsin 

Q: Robins, up close, sometimes give me the "evil eye" or so it seems. Has any poetry or other literature given any attention to this?

A: Robin eyes are situated on the sides of their heads. They get their clearest views of things by cocking their heads. Maybe it was their doing that, that seemed like an "evil eye."
Robins have been backyard birds since there were backyards, and their beautiful song and seeming friendliness around humans have made them so popular that they are the state bird of three states. When authors want to conjure an ominous symbol of evil using a bird, they tend to choose owls, ravens, or crows rather than robins.

Q: What do robins eat when there is total snow cover?

A: Berries and crab apples.

Q: Once a robin built her nest under a car on concrete in a car dealership. Why would she have done such a silly thing?

A: Because it seemed to her to be a safe, quiet, stable environment where crows and other natural predators would be unlikely to hurt her eggs or babies.

From: Washington

Q: I live in Southwest Washington State. How far south do the robins I see in the spring and summer usually migrate?

A: Robin migration varies from year to year. They can go any distance from dozens of miles to a thousand miles or more, depending on food availability.

Q: Do they migrate in flocks like the Canada Geese I see once in awhile?

A: Sometimes in fall robins do migrate in large flocks, and in winter they associate with other robins in flocks. But robin movements are more nomadic that goose movements. Canada Geese learn their route from their parents, and follow the same course year after year.

Q: Do they mate for life?

A: No. A pair will stay together for the summer, and sometimes both the male and female will survive and return to the same territory for a second year or more.

From: Illinois 

Q: I live in northern Illinois in a Chicago suburb. I have observed robins here as early as late January in a local forest preserve. This winter especially, the temps have been rather low and the snow plenty. I wonder why the robins are flying back so early, or are they staying the winter in some relatively warmer spot?

A: Some robins spend the entire winter in northern cities, and Chicago has a great many fruiting trees that supply them with abundant food. They have no trouble with the temperature as long as they can find enough food.

From: Saskatchewan
Lethbridge College

Q: I want to help them by putting a nest shelf somewhere. I used the design that was on this site and I was wondering if I should put a trim on so the robins can perch on the entrance?

A: Robins don't need a perch—they build the nest on the shelf. A perch won't make the nest shelf any more attractive to them.

Q: Next, where should I put them? I have so many trees on my acreage and have some sheds and a barn. Would they be better on a tree? Would they work on a tree?

A: These are usually designed to be put on buildings, particularly where eaves or other overhangs give them some protection from sun and rain. When robins nest in trees, they use the branches, where they get more cover from above than they would on tree trunks.

Q: Imagine this scenario. A robin has a nest built and has eggs in it. Then the snow comes back and food becomes scarce again and no berries left and ground freezes. What will happen? This has happened before.

A: This doesn't happen very often because male robins return much earlier than females, and because females need plenty of mud to build their nests. But once in a while bad weather does kill eggs or chicks. Then the robins renest.

From: Michigan

Q: Monday, when the temperature was about 59, I saw several robins in my backyard. Then it got cold, like below 32degrees F, and snowed. Haven't seen a robin since. What happens to robins when it gets ground freezing cold and snows. What do they eat? Did they all just die?

A: They didn't die—they just wandered in search of berries or crab apples.

From: New York
Saw Mill Road School

Q: I have observed robins as they look for worms. I noticed that they take a few steps, cock their head and then dive into the ground for a worm. Are they able to hear the worms or feel them? Thanks for you help in answering this question!

A: They're looking closely at the ground, peeking down worm holes.

From: Georgia
Parsons Elementary

Q: In the past few days, I have noticed several robins in my front yard lower themselves deep into the grass and sitting or they appear to be sitting. What are they doing?

A: Sitting. You don't describe the weather, but sometimes if there aren't protected branches nearby, they rest on the ground.

From: New York
Catskill Elementary School

Q: How long do the adult robins sit on the nest?

A: Only the females incubate the eggs. A mother robin does not sit on the eggs except to lay a new egg once a day until she’s laid three or four eggs. Then she sits on them all night long and most of the time during the days for 12-13 days. During those days, she usually sits on the eggs for 40 minutes, then flies off to feed and rest, and then returns for another 40 minutes.
After the eggs hatch, she also spends time brooding the chicks while her mate does most of the hunting for food, especially when the weather is cold or rainy.

Q. Why do robins hop?

A: Robins are one of the few species that can both hop and run. They tend to hop when the grass is too high to see through, but sometimes they hop just because they feel like it.

From: Michigan

Q: Is there any way to tell the difference between a male and female Robin from a distance?

A: The difference between males and females is very subtle, so it's tricky to tell them apart unless you have a good look. It also helps to look closely at every robin you see to practice.

From: Pennsylvania
Hanover Middle School

Q: Where does the robin fit on the food energy pyramid? We thought they would be a secondary consumer, but a teacher's book labeled them as tertiary consumers.

A: Few animals fit precisely in just one spot in the food energy pyramid, because so many animals, including robins, eat more than one thing. Robins eat fruit, making them primary consumers, and they eat insects and earthworms. Most earthworms are primary consumers, which means robins are secondary consumers. (Worms eat decayed materials, but mostly decayed plants.) But robins also eat insects, including some that eat other insects, so in that respect they could be considered tertiary consumers, though these insects provide less of their diet than plants and worms. Overall, I'd call robins omnivores.

From: Ohio

Q: What can we feed robins in freezing Ohio right now?

A: It's tricky to teach robins that food is in feeders—their instincts tell them to search for worms on lawns and for berries on trees and shrubs. But sometimes robins do learn to take mealworms and/or fruits from feeders.

Q: I have in the last couple of weeks noticed a speckled bird with the other robins near my mom's house. It looks like a robin - it has a red breast, but its back has speckles. Is it possibly a robin, and if so, how common is it to find one like that?

A: It sounds like you may be seeing a young robin—fledglings are speckled for quite a while.

From: Connecticut

Q: My five year old daughter, Kaleigh, would like to know why robins take so many water baths. We read at the Journey North site that they bathe frequently- more frequently than most birds- but we can't figure out why. Is it because they carry more parasites than typical birds?

A: Robins don't bathe more than other birds, though they DO come to backyard bird baths more than many species. That’s mainly because they feel safe in open lawns where most people set out their bird baths. But Blue Jays, Chipping Sparrows, and many other backyard birds also come to bird baths.

From: Michigan

Q: In snow and sleet with early arrivals, what can I place for them to eat to help them survive?

A: It's best to provide berry-producing plants for robins, since most robins don't understand the idea of bird feeders. You can try to set out mealworms and berries for them.

From: Illinois

Q: If the robins migrate in for the spring and it is 60 degrees or warmer for a few days and all of a sudden it snows and is cold (below freezing) for a week or longer what will they eat?

A: Fruits and berries.

From: Wisconsin
La Crosse Central High School

Q: If red and black are "warning signs" for a lot of animals in the world (monarchs, snakes, etc) why are robins orange and black? Is there anything about them that would cause them to evolve these colors?

A: Robins aren't as intensely red as birds such as cardinals, tanagers, and Red-winged Blackbirds. But these species all use their colors to warn other males away, and the brightness is also attractive to potential mates.

From: Delaware

Q: Where do robins go in the winter? Uncle Bobby said they nest together in the woods. I don't see any and I don't hear them. I live in Delaware.

A: Most robins winter in the southern states, but many remain in northern states. In the east, some nest in woodlands but most nest in suburban areas and cities where they can find earthworms on lawns.

From: New York

Q: If worms aren't out yet, indeed, what will the robins eat?

A: Berries and crab apples.

From: NJ
Home school

Q: Do robins go south for the winter? We live in New Jersey.

A: Many go south for the winter, but some spend the entire winter in New Jersey—most of these are probably robins that breed farther north.

Q: Are males and females the same color?

A: They're the same color, but males are more intensely colored than females.