The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Robins, Robins Everywhere
by Ro Wauer

For the first time in many years, an abundance of robins have so far remained in our yards and pastures this winter. Usually, these large songbirds arrive in November or December, stay around until they have finished up all of the available berries, and then move to other locations where there is still plenty of food. This year, probably because there is an unusually large crop of yaupon berries, they have stayed put. And at this writing there still is a reasonably good crop of available berries.

Robins, best referred to as American robin because several other kinds of robins occur south of the Mexican Border, are one of best known and most loved songbirds. Although they reside in South Texas only during the winter months, their personality cannot help but endear them to any of us who enjoy birds. Perhaps it is their cheery songs, but it is more likely because they are easily identified, as well as possessing unique behavior. One of our larger songbirds, robins possess a brick-red breast, blackish head with incomplete white eye rings, white chin with black streaks, yellow bill with a barely noticeable black tip, white lower belly, and blackish tail.

Robin behavior is truly unique in the bird world, a bird of behavioral contradictions. For instance, what other bird is so shy in winter but so people-friendly during its nesting season? Winter birds fly off at the least threat, but nesting bird search for food on our lawns almost underfoot. While searching for earthworms, their classic robin behavior is to run here and there across the field or lawn, stop and cock its head sideways to better see prey. It will suddenly run forward and grab an insect, spider or earthworm.

Another rather unusual robin behavior is its roosting, when various flocks overnight at choice locations. Wintering robins congregate at special locations each evening, often by the thousands. These sites, which may be as large as one square mile, are extremely noisy places with much singing and calling. By late winter birds may be in full song. Feeding areas may be spread out over a 12-mile radius. Spring and summer roosts are dominated by male robins; females remain on the nests. By autumn, the roosts contain both males and females, as well as the young of the year and even occasional migrants. A flock of robins, scattered across the sky in an irregularly spaced pattern, demonstrates one more of this bird's unique behavioral traits. Like the V pattern of geese, the groupings of crows, or the tight flock of waxwings, a flock of robins is so distinct that it can be identified at a considerable distance.

In addition, few birds bathe so often as the American robin, and from all indications they thoroughly enjoy this activity. They will regularly bathe each morning and late afternoon before flying off to their roosting sites. They will gather around a birdbath, often waiting their turns while the first contingent splashes and chirps in pure contentment. Bathing behavior is not restricted to wintertime, as bathing occurs year-round. I have actually watched robins bathe in runoff from snow banks in the mountains.

Although robins never utilize seed feeders, which they tend to totally ignore, they can easily be attracted to a yard with a birdbath. This year, with so many robins still present in our area, robin-watching can be great fun and provide consider amusement. They apparently have attracted the attention of naturalists since day one. John Burroughs, one of our earliest nature writers, wrote in his 1913 book, "Wake-Robin," that "Robin is one of the most native and democratic of our birds; he is one of the family...Hardy, noisy, frolicsome, neighborly and domestic in his habits, strong of wings, and bold in spirit, he is the pioneer of the thrush family, and well worthy of the finer artists whose coming he heralds and in a measure prepares us for."

[Ro Wauer is the author of “The American Robin,” published in 1999 by the Univ. Texas Press.]


At 9:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does the Robin's chirp sound like?

At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We live in northwest Iowa and have robin's flying up and into our windows, obviously seeing their reflections. It is very dirty and no windows seem to be immune. Any solutions or explanations?

At 10:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the window problem: Hang something -- not a plant -- in the window so they can see that there is something to be avoided.

In my experience, placing a plant anywhere near the window just makes the problem worse.

Ruling out plants still leaves lots of options including curtains, a stained glass ornament, etc.


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