Answers From the American Robin Expert
Spring 2015
News Update | Teaching Suggestions | Facts

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

"It's always fun to read the questions you send! Thanks for participating in Journey North!" — Laura

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Questions and Answers

Q: I feed my robins raisins when I know they need food in the spring. I worry when I move that they will starve because they depend on me in the spring. Am I wrong in feeding them? Thank you?

A:What a lovely practice, giving you the gifts of being able to watch your robins and of knowing you’re truly helping them. Fortunately, winter robins are natural fruit-eaters. The availability of fruit is constantly changing, and so robins have adapted by being nomadic by nature. They’ll take advantage of a plentiful supply, but when the fruit disappears, they instinctively move on to new supplies. So you can rest assured that even as your raisins are providing essential nutrition and making migration easier for your robins, they will readily adapt when you move on.

From: Lake Superior Elementary in Wisconsin

Q: How long do robins live?

A: The oldest known wild robin bearing a numbered leg band lived to be 13 years 11 months old. Some robins do survive 6 years or more, but most have much shorter lives. Survival is especially difficult during the time robins are in the nest. About 60 years ago, an ornithologist named H. Young followed one banded female robin for three years. During that time, she laid 30 eggs. Only 21 of them hatched (predation by squirrels, crows, and snakes is a major cause of lost eggs). Of the 21 nestlings, 16 survived to fledge. He estimated that of fledglings, only about 25 percent survive until November 1 each year. After surviving their first winter, their life expectancy goes up.

Q: Do robins come back to the same location year after year? Where do they go in the winter?

A: Some individual adult robins do return to the same areas year after year. A robin named Buddy returned for three years to the yard of Journey North's own Julie Brophy. But young robins seldom return to the area where they hatched, and if a pair of robins doesn't succeed in raising young in an area, they are likely to move on to a new area for their next nesting of the season. Robins wander during winter, most ending up in central and southern states, but individual robins go to different places year after year, individuals may wander widely within a single winter.

Q: What is a robin's favorite food? Do they like insects??

A: The answer depends on what time of year! In winter, robins are frugivores, specializing on fruit. They eat mountain ash berries, crabapples, and many other fruits, and may visit feeders for blueberries, strawberries, and other yummy treats impossible to find in the real world at that time of year. They switch to a spring/summer diet of earthworms and insects as soon as the weather makes that possible. They eat a great many insects, especially caterpillars, as well as many species of worms.

From: Texas

Q: When is the arrival for Gulf Coast area around Houston, TX?

A: Robins “arrive” on the Gulf Coast in fall and winter, and leave in spring. Their time of arrival varies wildly from one year to the next, depending on what foods are available further north.

From: Ohio

Q: Several years ago, I read on the Cornell University web site that Robins migrate when the daily average temperature is approximately 45 degrees. I wanted to check again and couldn't find the information. Have you heard of this?

A: The temperature their migration is timed to coincide with is about 37 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, some robins winter even in the far north, where the winter temperatures are far below that, but the major movements of spring migration tend to follow the 37 degree isotherm—the line on a weather map showing where the average day/night temperature is 37 degrees. More: Spring Fever: Testing a Temperature Hypothesis About Migration.

From: Illinois

Q: Is it true they return to the same breeding area every year?

A: No. (See answer above.)