Answers from the Robin Expert
Spring 2013

Teaching Suggestions

Special thanks to Laura Erickson for providing her time and expertise in responding to your questions! Look for answers to questions like these:

  • Why do some robins eat at birdfeeders?
  • Can I "plant" earthworms to help robins?
  • What are some dangers baby birds face?

Laura Erickson

Questions and Answers

From Montrose, Michigan

Q: I have never seen robins at bird feeders or suet feeders until this winter, when my backyard robin regularly ate at the suet feeder. How do you explain this unusual robin behavior?

A: This is an exceptional robin! Most robins learn a "search" pattern for food during the time they spend with their father after fledging, and then with robin flocks their first summer, fall, and winter. So they learn to look for fruit trees and discover ways to find earthworms and insects in the ways that robins have always searched for food. Long ago, robins learned to visit bird baths, expanding their search pattern for getting water, and so it's easy for young robins to see other robins visiting bird baths. Many neighborhood have so many fruit trees and substantial populations of earthworms that few robins have learned to associate bird feeders with food.

In my own yard, over many years, I've had a few robins learn to take mealworms. Some probably first noticed other birds carrying off the squirming grubs from a dish in my window feeder. One male's nest was in a nearby tree, and he may have noticed the moving insects on his own. that male also learned to take suet, perhaps from observing other birds. But his first preference was always mealworms.

Between years of drought in many areas and so many people using lawn treatments that include insecticides, earthworms may be growing more difficult for robins to find, and it's when they're very hungry or thirsty that they are most likely to expand their food preferences and pay closer attention to where other birds are getting food. This robin apparently found the suet to his liking, and knows he can depend on it when other food is scarce! I wonder if other neighborhood robins will notice and start visiting suet feeders, too?

From: Silt, Colorado

Q: How likely is it that a robin will use their nest from last year? We were able to enjoy two groups of robins and we were hoping to see them return this Spring. Would it help if we removed the old nest so they can build a new in its place or will they use the old one?

A: Sometimes they do reuse a nest, but it's usually best to remove it so they can build a new one each spring. The structure of a nest is usually weakened over the winter as the mud and fibers freeze and thaw repeatedly, and some parasites may lie dormant in old nests, ready to attack the next year.

When they successfully nest on a territory, adult robins often return to the same site year after year. So if they brought off young last year, there's a good chance that your robins will return this year. Robins are most successful where they have a good source of pesticide-free earthworms and insects, some fruit trees, and a supply of soft mud. Their first nest in usually on a house or other building or in an evergreen tree or shrub. They usually build a new nest for each brood they raise during a summer.

From: Lansdale, Pennsylvania

Q: Is there a risk to the eggs/young with constant disruption during nesting? A robin has built a nest (with 4 eggs) in a bush right outside our front door and next to the driveway. The robin scatters every time somebody walks by.

A: Once in a while, a panicking robin mother can damage or dislodge an egg, so you're right to be concerned, but there's not much you can do. She was presumably noticing your family's comings and goings when she chose the site and built the nest. The best you can probably do is signal her—say, by whistling or calling out—before you approach too closely, allowing her to leave without panicking.

Q: Would it be beneficial to "plant" some earthworms in the vicinity of my robin's nest, especially once the eggs hatch?

A: This would be very beneficial if you get the worms from a reliable source so you can be certain they haven't been exposed to any pesticides. Some people fill a birdbath with potting soil, sphagnum moss, or another moist, loose substrate and add worms. This can provide wonderful views of your robins and give the pair an easy time locating food, if they figure it out in the first place. Setting the worms o top, in view of the nest, will help them figure it out, though the worms will quickly burrow down so you may have to do this a few times before the robins notice.

From: Layton, Utah

Q: What happens to robin babies that don't leave the nest? Over the summers I have seen many Robin pairs create nests and hatch 3 or 4 babies, but why do I only see one or two babies leave the nest?

A: A great many dangers face every baby bird. When food is less than abundant, one or two of the chicks may starve. This is a harsh truth, but nature provides a somewhat merciful way of culling the weaker birds. The hungrier nestlings are, the more assertively they beg for food, up until the point where they start growing weak. At this point, they no longer appear very hungry, and the parents focus on the others. This seems cruel and harsh, but by focusing what food parents can find on the healthiest babies, it ensures that at least one or two babies will get plenty—whereas spreading food equally could prevent any of the chicks from thriving and reaching the point of fledging.

Sometimes one chick will fledge ahead of the others. When robins first leave the nest, they can't fly yet, so hop and flutter their tiny wings and hop, and have no ability or interest in ever returning to the nest. They quickly learn to hide in dense foliage or are taken by predators. So sometimes we see only the last one or two fledge, but one or two others may have fledged more quietly and secretively.

Successful nests (meaning at least one chick fledges) bring off an average of two chicks, but sometimes an experienced pair of robin parents can fledge all four chicks.

Q: If they die does the mom or dad remove the body from the nest? 

A: Sometimes one of the parents does carry off a dead nestling. This promotes nest sanitization, keeping the other nestlings safer from bacteria, maggots and flies, and other health hazards. Rarely, a dead nestling gets trampled by the other nestlings, who don't recognize the dead nestling and simply want to be higher up during a feeding.

Q: Does the mom or dad sometimes feel the nest is full and kick out the baby birds too soon and they die?

A: No. As a mother robin builds the nest, her body ensures that it's the right size. Rarely, the babies may all be at one edge of the nest together, and as they jostle while competing for a feeding, one may fall out accidentally. But thriving baby robins always fledge as soon as their body is the right size and at the right stage in development. Both parents stay focused on feeding them while the young are in the nest, and the male stays with them for a good two weeks after they fledge (while the mother starts building a new nest and incubating new eggs).

From Clinton, Montana

Q: My wife and I are licensed bird rehabbers. We have a young robin (got it as a hatchling) ) that is now in transition between nestling and fledgling. It has a "floppy" (palsy-like) neck and is unable to hold up its head unaided. This affects its ability to develop skills such as flying, finding food, etc. We are looking for anyone who may be able to provide ideas concerning how to deal with the condition. Can you help? Thank you.

A: I hope you got help with this question while it could still be helpful, because our timeline for "Ask the Expert' is not good for medical emergencies. The National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association has many excellent publications and information on their website that may help you, and the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota also provides a wealth of information. Belonging to the national organization is a great idea for any rehabilitator—networking with other rehabbers can help you find answers to unexpected situations right when they come up.