Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
[Published in 1949: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 196: 14 - 45]
The robin, the largest thrush in North America, is widely and familiarly known in the United States and Canada. To millions of people it is as well known as the crow, and far more popular.
The early English colonists gave it its name, doubtless because it resembled in coloration the robin redbreast of England, but they failed to notice the close relationship between our robin and their blackbird, which is a true thrush, Turdus, the two birds being very similar in habits, general deportment, and voice, although different in plumage.
H. C. Kyllingstad writes to us from Mountain Village, Alaska: "The robin here is not the confiding creature that it is in the States. Most frequently it nests away from the village as the native children like robin eggs to eat as well as those of any other bird. The old birds do come about the cabins while feeding or hunting food for the young, but the young are almost never seen, and the old birds keep a sharp watch and will not allow one to approach closely.
"Robins are fairly common in the willow and alder thickets along the Yukon and its branches, but in two years I have found no nests in these places. The only nests I have seen were on the edge of the village under a lean-to attached to a small warehouse. I was able to keep the children away from one nest and three young left the day after I banded them. The robins are very suspicious of my banding traps; not one has been trapped in two years."
Spring.--From the warm southern states the robin starts northward early in the year, often in flights of impressive magnitude. George H. Mackay (1897) reports an enormous flight of robins in Florida on February 14, 15, and 16, 1897, observed by James K. Knowlton about 100 miles south of St. Augustine. He says: "They came from a southerly direction, and were continually passing, alighting and repassing, on the above dates, the general movement being in a northerly direction. The air was full of them, and their numbers beyond estimate, reminding him of bees. Mr. Knowlton heard that this movement of Robins had been noted for a distance of ten miles away, across the flight." And Peter A. Brannon (1921) writes from Alabama: "The annual migration of Robins through the city of Montgomery, took place this year, during the latter part of February, and for ten days thousands were observed on the city streets."
As the robins move northward, they follow very closely the advance of the average daily temperature of 37o, and we may look for them in eastern Massachusetts soon after March 10. They take their place at this time in the opening scene of the grand, dramatic pageant of the long spring migration that follows our bleak, and often comparatively birdless, new England winter.
The robin, however, does not play a leading part in this initial scene; he is a minor character, not at his best so early in the spring. The main actors in the play are the blackbirds, streaming onto the stage in murky, clattering clouds; the bluebirds, mated already, warbling their charming songs to their ladyloves; the song sparrows, filling every acre with their tinkling music.
Wendell Taber and I watched a typical arrival of robins on the morning of March 15, 1936, a day when there was a general influx of the birds into Massachusetts. Looking southward across a broad meadow, we saw them coming toward us, the first we had seen, a flock of a dozen or more, flying in open order, but rather evenly spaced, not closely packed like blackbirds. When they came to the northern edge of the meadow and caught sight of a patch of greensward, they checked their flights and settled on the grass, joining other robins that were running about there, and, after feeding a little while, passed on again to the north. All through the day, spent between Boston and Newburyport, the robin was a prominent bird, chiefly during the morning hours, mostly in small flocks, but sometimes collected in dozens, spread over the open fields. This day's observation is characteristic of the early spring robin flight. It is not spectacular; the great gatherings of the south have thinned out before reaching New England, leaving only small flocks of wild, wary male birds, which wander restlessly about the country, perching in high trees, or feeding in neglected fields or, more commonly, in the cedar pastures where they pluck off the berries. The birds are not in song at this season. They are comparatively silent (i.e., compared to their noisy companions in the migration), expressing themselves only in nervous exclamations.
Early in April we note a sudden, marked change in the behavior of the robins we see about us. We meet many of the birds now in the settled districts of the towns, in our gardens, running familiarly over the lawns. They are tamer than the first migrants and act as if they were our local birds returned to their last year's homes.
The arrival of the female birds at this time precipitates a period of noisy activity. For days our lawns and dooryards become the scene of countless combats and shrieking pursuits full of liveliness and excitement. A male bird will often run at another, seeming to jostle him, and both may then jump into the air against each other, suggesting a fight between gamecocks, or one bird may fly off pursued by the other.
When the noisy pursuits are in full swing, early in April, we sometimes see two robins dash past us, one bird following the other, a hand's breadth apart, sweeping along not far above the ground at a speed so reckless, with lightninglike twists and turns, that collision seems inevitable. Yet they continue on without mishap and pass out of our sight so rapidly that we cannot be sure of their respective sex, and we are left in doubt whether the pursuits are amatory or hostile. The special feature of these pursuits is that only two birds engage in them, and that the flights are maintained for a long distance.
At this season there is still only fitful singing, chiefly in the morning, but all day we hear the long, giggling laugh, he-he-he-he, and the scream of attack.
The ground is softening now, and the earthworms, near the surface, are available as food for the next generation of robins.
Courtship.--John Burroughs (1894) ably describes a phase of robin activity, familiar to us all, in which the noisy pursuits assume an element of true courtship. He says: "In the latter half of April we pass through what I call the 'robin racket'--trains of three or four birds rushing pell-mell over the lawn and fetching up in a tree or bush, or occasionally upon the ground, all piping and screaming at the top of their voices, but whether in mirth or anger it is hard to tell. The nucleus of the train is a female. One cannot see that the males in pursuit of her are rivals; it seems rather as if they had united to hustle her out of the place. But somehow the matches are no doubt made and sealed during these mad rushes."
Bradford Torrey (1885) speaks of a quieter courtship:
How gently he approaches his beloved! How carefully he avoids ever coming disrespectfully near! No sparrow-like screaming, no dancing about, no melodramatic gesticulation. If she moves from one side of the tree to the other, or to the tree adjoining, he follows in silence. Yet every movement is a petition, an assurance that his heart is hers and ever must be. . . . On one occasion, at least, I saw him holding himself absolutely motionless, in a horizontal posture, staring at his sweetheart as if he would charm her with his gaze, and emitting all the while a subdued hissing sound. The significance of this conduct I do not profess to have understood; it ended with his suddenly darting at the female, who took wing and was pursued.
It is not uncommon to hear a robin give this hissing note when it is apparently, alone--standing motionless, as Torrey says, and with its bill pointing slightly upward and the tail expanded. Sometimes, also, a male will utter the hissing sound in phrases much like his song, suggested by the whispered syllables hissilly, hissilly. I heard the note once, given in this form when the bird was on the wing.
Audubon (1841) describes what is evidently the culmination of courtship: "During the pairing season, the male pays his addresses to the female of his choice frequently on the ground, and with a fervour evincing the strongest attachment. I have often seen him, at the earliest dawn of a May morning, strutting around her with all the pomposity of a pigeon. Sometimes along a space of ten or twelve yards, he is seen with his tail fully spread, his wings shaking, and his throat inflated, running over the grass and brushing it, as it were, until he has neared his mate, when he moves round her several times without once rising from the ground. She then receives his caresses."
Nesting.--The robin's nest appears as a rather large heap of coarse materials. It is rough on the outside, even unkempt sometimes, because many of the loose ends of grass stalks, twigs, and bits of string or cloth of which the nest is made are not tucked in or neatly woven into the body of the nest, but protrude or hang down from the outer wall. At the top is a deep depression like a round, smooth cup formed by a thick layer of mud, which extends upward to a firm rim, the cup being lined with a little fine, dry grass.
T. Gilbert Pearson (1910) describes thus the structure of a nest built in a balsam: "In its building, a framework of slender balsam twigs had first been used. There were sixty-three of these, some of which were as much as a foot in length. Intertwined with these were twenty fragments of weed stalks and grass stems. The yellow clay cup, which came next inside, varied in thickness from a quarter of an inch at the rim to an inch at the bottom. Grass worked in with the clay while it was yet soft aided in holding it together, and now, last of all, came the smooth, dry carpet of fine grass. The whole structure measured eight inches across the top; inside it was three inches in width, and one and a half deep."
Reginald Heber Howe, Jr. (1898), describes the bird's method of building the nest:
After the site has been chosen the building of a substantial foundation of twigs, grasses, string, etc., is begun; this finished, finer grasses are brought and the bird standing in the centre of the foundation draws them round. After the sides of the nest have been fairly well made the bird by turning around in the nest shapes it to the exact contour of its body, and by pushing its breast far down into the nest and raising the primaries, it presses the nest with the wrist of the wing into a compact and perfect mass. The next work is the plastering with mud; a rainy day is generally chosen for this work; the bird brings the mud in its bill and, placing it on the inside of the nest, flattens it into shape by exactly the methods just described. All that remains now is the lining, which is made of fine grasses and which adheres to the mud, making a substantial though not a particularly beautiful nest.
The average measurements of nest are: depth, outside, 3 inches; depth, inside, 2 1/2 inches; breadth, outside, 6 1/2 inches; breadth, inside, 4 inches.
J. H. Rohrbach (1915) points out that robins may use worm casts as a mud lining for their nests. He says: "A heavy rain of fourteen hours' duration came just at plastering-time. Mud was abundant. Then I observed what was new to me--the Robins passed by all kinds of mud except the castings of earthworms, which they gathered and used for nest-building."
Katharine S. Parsons (1906) describes a nest from which hung "two fringed white satin badges, fastened by mud and sticks" and near them "a knot of coarse white lace" and "two white chicken feathers," and Henry Mousley (1916) states that "Robins here [Hatley, Quebec] are particularly fond of using pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) in the foundations of their nests."
In early days, before the forests were cleared away, robins presumably built mainly on horizontal limbs or trees or in crotches between the branches as many robins build now in the wilder, heavily wooded parts of the country, but when man felled the trees and replaced them by buildings, he supplied the bird with countless additional sites which afford an ample support, the chief requirement for a robin's nest. Concealment, it seems, is of minor importance to the robin, perhaps because it is difficult to hide so large a nest, perhaps because the bird is well able to defend it. In response to the change in conditions the robin has not only adopted many man-made structures as a site for its nest, but has also accepted man as a neighbor, breeding freely even in large cities in an environment completely changed from that of long ago. At the present time there are probably many times as many robins breeding in the United States as there were in Colonial days.
Frank L. Farley makes an interesting comment on this subject in a letter to Mr. Bent: "During the last half century the robin has increased in Alberta at least 100 percent. This is in about the same ratio as the country has become settled. When the hard prairie lands were broken up, it was noted that earthworms were absent, but with the arrival of the settlers, it was not long before the worms began to appear, especially in the gardens surrounding the buildings. The birds increased in numbers at about the same rate as the growth of garden space. It is believed that the settlers inadvertently introduced the worms with the potted plants and shrubs which they brought with them."
There are many records in the literature of robins nesting in various situations which were not available years ago, such as on a rail fence, a fence post, a gate post, or a clothes-line post; Stanley Tess (1926) reports a nest "on top of a gate-post which forms part of the gate itself. This is not a rarely used gate but, on the contrary, one in the public stockyards where it shuts off the runway leading to the loading platform." On buildings, nests have been placed on the ledge of a window, on blinds, on rain pipes or gutters under the eaves, on a rolled-up porch curtain, on a fire-escape, on beams inside or outside of buildings, piazzas, or porches, sometimes several old nests showing previous occupancy, and even on a lamp bracket in a dance hall. H. P. Severson (1921) tells of a nest that was placed on a trolley wire; "cars passed under this nest every few minutes, their trolley being only a few inches below it. On each occasion the Robin stood up, then settled back on the nest." A nest on a railroad signal gate was observed by Ward W. Adair (1920): "This gate is swung from one position to another perhaps fifty times in twenty-four hours. . . . At night when the red light was placed in position, the signalman's hands were always within a few inches of the bird." A nest may be placed on top of a bird house, or on any open shelf, but Gilbert H. Trafton (1907) tells of one that was actually in a bird house. Wilbur F. Smith (1920) reports three nests inside a blacksmith's shop, respectively, on a wheel hub, on a smoke pipe, and "on some iron used to re-tire wheels, and within eight feet of the anvil before which the blacksmith worked most of the day." Access was provided for the bird by removal of a windowpane.
A. D. DuBois refers in his notes to a nest in a cemetery, "about 5 feet from the ground, on top of a plain stone base, which supported the sculptured figure of a standing woman." Other vagaries in nesting sites are: on a last year's hornet's nest, in a vacated nest of a catbird, on a last year's oriole's nest, on a shelf of rock in a cave, and in an old rotted-out woodpecker's hole in which a mud nest was built. Edward C. Raney (1939) tells of a robin sharing a nest with a mourning dove; "the birds shared the duties of incubation and. . .the eggs were hatched and the young were fed and brooded for eight days." The two species had shared a nest the previous year. Mr. Bent once found an occupied nest entirely inside an eel trap on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.; the trap was lying on open ground, and the eggs could be plainly seen through the netting.
Edward A. Preble points out that the robin, when trees are not available, occasionally builds a nest on low cliffs. In Appendix G, by Seton and Preble, in Seton's "The Arctic Prairies" (1912, p. 405) is this record: "The bird was not common on Pike's Portage, between Great Slave Lake and Artillery Lake, but a deserted nest was seen near Toura Lake, near the summit of the divide, where nearly Barren Ground conditions prevail. There being no trees suitable for nesting, the bird had placed its home in a cranny on the face of a low cliff, where it was protected from the elements." A similar observation was later made near the camp at the "Last Woods" on the east side of Artillery Lake, early in the same year, 1907, when Mr. Preble saw a typical robin's nest, then deserted, on a low cliff, 5 or 6 feet from the ground and at least a mile from the nearest grove of spruces, where several deserted nests were observed in normal situations.
There are several records of robins building their nests on the ground, but the following is even more remarkable. Craig S. Thoms (1929) says: "The Robin had actually laid its clutch of eggs on the dry leaves beside a bush which was close to the house. . . . There was no sign of a nest, or even an attempt to make one."
The nest is built chiefly by the female bird, although her mate aids by bringing in material. Berners B. Kelly (1913) says of a pair which he watched for hours: "On every journey, practically, the female brought larger loads than the male, and twenty-two more of them. The actual shaping of the nest was done entirely by the female, the male usually dropping his load haphazard on the edge of the structure."
Incubation, too, is performed mainly, if not wholly by the female, the male meanwhile standing guard. Hervey Brackbill states that he observed two pairs of robins marked with colored bands and that "every time that I could determine the sex of the incubating bird, it was the female. On one day of combined incubation and brooding all of the 13 consecutive sittings were made by that bird." Ora W. Knight (1908), however, says that "The male also takes short turns at incubating, more often helping in this work towards the end of the incubation period." He remarks also: "I have known of a nest being completed and the first egg laid in six days from the time when it was commenced, while other nests have required even up to twenty days from time of beginning to completion, but the longer time required was due to a spell of prolonged rainy weather."
Mr. Preble states: "On a morning early in June, about 1886 at my boyhood home in Wilmington, Mass., I happened to see the first few weed stalks deposited on the sloping branch of a medium-sized white oak in our grove, about 8 feet from the ground. At intervals through the day I observed the pair, busily engaged, and taking a look at the site just before dark I was surprised to find the nest virtually finished, the cup of mud fully formed but still wet. The next morning when I went out about breakfast time the earth cup was furnished with the usual lining of dry grass, and an egg had been laid. The clutch was completed promptly and the brood successfully raised."
The nest is kept scrupulously clean while the nestlings are in it, the parents seizing the fecal sacs as they are voided and frequently swallowing them. The male parent takes practically full charge of the fledglings, enabling his mate to prepare at once for another brood. In a nest I had under observation, four fertilized eggs were laid in a nest six days after the young of the first brood had left it.
Thomas D. Burleigh (1931), speaking of the robin in Pennsylvania, remarks: "Two and possibly three broods are reared each year," and he gives the normal height of the nest above the ground as "varying here from five to thirty feet."
Mr. Preble submits notes on nesting robins received from W. A. Brown, of Aylesford, Nova Scotia, under date of February 16, 1948: "On my place last year, in an 8-inch-diameter maple, a pair of robins built three nests. The male had a pure white feather in middle of upper tail coverts. The same year I had a robin's nest in which two broods were raised. A neighbor had a blue spruce in which, three years ago, a pair of robins raised three broods in one nest. Last year I found a robin's nest on the ground, and two years ago one on the ground."
Robins show persistency in their nesting habits, often returning to the same nest or situation year after year. The following quotations illustrate this habit. Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1909) says: "In the 'Birds of Essex County,' page 313, I recorded a Robin's nest that was built under the porch, on the lintel of the front door of my summer house, at Ipswich, Mass., and, at the time the book was published, had been occupied, presumably by the same pair, for four successive seasons. Since then it was used for two more summers, or six in all, but in the winter following the last, i.e., the winter of 1906-7, it was blown down, and the spot has not been built on since. I think, however, that the same pair have since built in a bush close to the front door. This nest over the door was repaired and built a little higher each year, so that in the summer of 1906, when it was last occupied, it had attained a height of eight inches, and was practically a six-storied nest." John H. Sage (1885) reports that "a Robin built her nest five consecutive years in a woodbine that was trained up and over a piazza. We knew her by a white mark on one side of her head."
Hugh M. Halliday, of Toronto, Canada, has sent us a photograph of a very tall nest, in which at least two broods a year had been raised during six successive seasons.
Eggs.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: Four eggs comprise the usual set for the robin, but often only three are laid; five eggs in a set are rare, and I have taken one set of six, and sets of seven have been reported. The eggs vary greatly in size and shape; the usual shape is typical-ovate, but some are rounded-ovate, elliptical-ovate, or even elongate-ovate. Some are quite glossy after they have been sat upon, but usually they have only a slight luster. Robin's-egg blue seems to be commonly accepted as a standard color and well known; more specifically this means either "Nile blue" or "pale Nile blue," as the eggs appear in collections; some freshly laid eggs may be as dark as "beryl green." I have seen some pure white eggs. Almost invariably they are unmarked, but I have seen one set that was sparingly marked with a few small spots and dots of very dark brown; and I have heard of a number of other spotted sets, some fairly dotted with pale brown.
The measurements of 50 eggs in the United States National Museum average 28.1 by 20.0 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 31.6 by 20.3, 28.5 by 23.1, 23.8 by 18.8, and 27.9 by 16.8 millimeters.]
Young.--Franklin L. Burns (1915), from the records of several observers, gives the incubation period of the robin as 11 to 14 days. William Edward Schantz (1939), who made an intensive study of three broods of robins, spending "from one to 16 hours each day in direct observation," found that "incubation began in all nests the evening following the deposit of the second egg and lasted for 12 1/2 to 13 days."
Hervey Brackbill writes in his notes: "The incubation period for a marked egg was an hour or two less than 12 days." Of the nestlings he says: "When I lifted them out of the nest to band them, at the age of 7 or 8 days, they clutched the bottom of the nest so tenaciously with their feet that they pulled up a bit of the grass lining. Such a grip must be useful in preventing young birds from being tossed out of the nest during storms."
Schantz (1939) states that one of his broods left the nest 15 and 16 days and another 14 days after hatching. This is about the period of nest life that I noted in a brood in 1912 (Winsor M. Tyler, 1913). These young birds (a second brood) hatched on June 25, or possibly the day before. On the 25th their mouths were just visible above the rim of the nest. On July 1 they filled the nest level full, and tossed about restlessly, apparently preening their feathers. On July 4 they were feathering out fast; they reared up in the nest and flapped their wings, in danger it seemed of falling. On July 7 they were so large that in moving about they overflowed the nest, and one of them stood on a branch of the crotch and moved back and forth between it and the nest, using its wings to steady itself. On July 8 three of the birds, and perhaps the fourth, left the nest.
James Russell Lowell says in his Bigelow Papers that the robins settle down to nesting about the time when the leaves of the horse chestnut tree begin to unfold. In a normal year we notice this phenomenon in eastern Massachusetts, where Lowell lived, toward the close of April, so, allowing two weeks for the incubation of the eggs, and two weeks more for their life as nestlings, the young birds are ready to fly in early June. At this time a day comes when all the robins in the neighborhood appear to be in the highest pitch of excitement; young birds are blundering about on the ground, and their parents seem distracted for their safety. We also hear a new note on this day, a queer, loud, exclamatory seech-ook, which leads us to where the young robins are squatting on the grass, waiting to be fed--plump, innocent-looking birds with spotted breasts and stumpy tails, staring up at the sky with little sign of fear, a choice morsel for the house cat.
They soon become wary, however, and before long are able to avoid attack by running swiftly away, or by flying out of reach. The male parents now take full charge of the broods, and as they scud over the grass plots in search of earthworms, the little birds follow them about expectantly, waiting for them to pull out the worms, shake them, and thrust them into their throats. The fledglings rapidly acquire the manner of adult birds. In a few days they throw off the crouching attitude of the nestling and assume the erect, proud bearing of adult birds, and in less than two weeks are able, but not always willing, to find food for themselves. The male parent is thus free to aid in the care of the next brood, which is almost ready to hatch.
Plumages.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: Dr. Dwight (1900) says that the natal down of the robin is "mouse-gray." He gives a full account of the juvenal plumage, but I prefer the more concise description by Mr. Ridgway (1907) as follows: "Head as in adults, but the black duller and white orbital markings less sharply defined, sometimes buffy; back and scapulars grayish brown or olive, the feathers with central or mesial spots or streaks of white or pale buff and blackish tips; rump and upper tail-coverts brownish gray or grayish brown, the feathers sometimes narrowly tipped with blackish; wings and tail as in adults, but wing-coverts with terminal wedge-shaped spots or streaks of pale rusty, buff, or whitish; chin and throat white or pale buffy, margined laterally with a stripe of blackish or line of blackish streaks; underparts cinnamon-rufous, ochraceous-tawny, or buffy ochraceous (sometimes the chest and breast much paler, occasionally whitish), conspicuously spotted with black, the lower abdomen white or pale buffy." There is much individual variation in the amount of rufous on the underparts; some juvenals have the sides of the breast largely as bright rufous as in adults, and others have little or none of this color.
A postjuvenal molt, involving all the contour plumage, the wing coverts, and tertials, but not the rest of the wings or the tail, takes place from August to October, the date depending largely on the date of hatching. This produces a first winter plumage which is similar to the winter plumages of the adults of the respective sexes, but the colors are duller and more veiled, browner above, head not so dark, and the white spots on the tail feathers are smaller. The first nuptial plumage is produced by wear; much of the white edging on the breast is lost so that the breast becomes redder; the head becomes blacker and the chin clearer black and white.
Young and old birds become indistinguishable after the next postnuptial molt, which is complete, in August and September. The sexes are alike in the juvenal plumage, but after that the females are always somewhat duller in color, the upper parts lighter and browner, the head not so black, and the breast paler, often edged with whitish.
Dr. Harold B. Wood, who has made a thorough study of the white tail markings of eastern robins, tells me that there is great individual variation in the extent and shape of these markings, which are constant from year to year in individual birds. His studies were based on the examination of 162 robins trapped from 1938 to 1943, and the results will be published.
Albinism is common in the robin. I have seen many partial and some fully albino birds, both in life and in museums. While visiting with Hon. R. M. Barnes, at Lacon, Ill., I saw a beautiful perfect albino robin that had been living in his conservatory for some time. Melanism, the excess of black pigment in the plumage, is much less common, but it occurs occasionally. Sometimes both phases of abnormal plumage may occur in the same individual, and either may be replaced by normal plumage at the next molt. For further information on albinism, melanism, and other items about robins, the reader is referred to a series of papers by Dr. Earl Brooks, published in the Indiana Audubon Society's Year Books for 1931 to 1935.
Hugh M. Halliday has sent me a beautiful series of photographs of a pair of nesting robins, one pure white and the other in normal plumage; they have been mated together and nested for three successive years at 78 Broadway Avenue, Toronto; they have raised two broods of three and one brood of four during the three years, all of which have developed normally colored plumage.]
Food.--Waldo L. McAtee (1926), in his study of the relation of birds to woodlots, makes a distinction between the food of the woodland robins and those which live in our dooryards. He writes the following comprehensive report of the robins' food:
Our knowledge of the feeding habits of the Robin is based mainly of course on studies of the bird as it ordinarily occurs, near to man and his works. We do not have particular information on the mode of life of the woodland Robins. We may, however, be assured on two points, namely that cultivated fruits do not play the part in the diet of these birds that they do in the case of our (in this respect, too familiar) neighbors, and that wild berries therefore are of much greater importance to this fruit-loving bird.
Like the true thrushes the Robin approves of a 60-40 dietary composition, but in a reverse sense, the larger item in its case being vegetable rather than animal food. There is no question about Robins sometimes taking too much cultivated fruit, thus necessitating reduction in their numbers. However, the woodland Robins with which we are here especially concerned have little or no part in these depredations, and their fruit-eating is a benefit rather than an injury because it results in the planting of numerous trees and shrubs. The favorite wild fruits of New York robins are those of red cedar, greenbrier, mulberry, pokeweed, juneberry, blackberry and raspberry, wild cherry, sumac, woodbine, wild grape, dogwood, and blueberry.
Beetles and caterpillars are the items of animal food taken in greatest quantity by the Robin, with bugs, hymenoptera, flies, and grasshoppers of considerably less importance. Spiders, earthworms, millipeds, sowbugs, and snails are additional sorts of animal food worth mentioning.
Various insects which are pests or near pests in woodlots have been identified from stomachs of Robins and we may be sure that a special study of Robins actually living in forests would greatly increase the list. . . .
In the economic court the Robin of the forest, and the Robin of the houseyard, must be adjudged separately, and regardless of the fact that it is differences in opportunities largely that gives the former a much better character than the latter. The forest Robin has no chance at cultivated fruits and it has much greater opportunities to devour woodland insect pests. As we have seen, it improves these opportunities and should be credited accordingly. In the woodlot the Robin is certainly more beneficial than injurious.
F. E. L. Beal (1915a) in a report of an extensive study of the robins' food carefully weighs the benefit that the robin renders man by consuming harmful insects against the birds' depredations upon the fruit in his orchards. In his summary he says: "While the animal food of the robin includes a rather large percentage of useful beetles, it is not in the consumption of these or any other insect that this bird does harm. A bird whose diet contains so large a percentage of fruit, including so many varieties, may at any time become a pest when its natural food fails and cultivated varieties are accessible. While the robin today probably is doing much more good than harm, it must be acknowledged that the bird is potentially harmful."
Professor Beal (1915a) suggests a means by which we can divert the robin's attention from our fruit trees. "For a number of years," he says--
the writer has engaged in the cultivation of small fruits in Massachusetts, and although robins were abundant about the farm they did no appreciable damage. On the farm where the writer lived when a boy was a fine collection of the choicest varieties of cherries. The fruit first to ripen each year was shared about equally by the birds and the family, but that which matured afterwards did not attract the birds, probably because in that section the woods and swamps abound with many species of wild fruits.
Reports of depredations upon fruit by birds come principally from the prairie region of the West. This is just what might be expected, for but few prairie shrubs produce the wild berries that the birds prefer and for lack of these the birds naturally feed upon the cultivated varieties available. Reports of fruit losses caused by birds in the East are usually from the immediate vicinity of villages or towns where there is no natural fruit-bearing shrubbery. From this it follows that an effective remedy for the ravages of birds upon cultivated fruits is to plant the preferred wild varieties.
The following food-bearing trees, shrubs, and herbs appear on his list: red cedar, common juniper, bayberry, hackberry, mulberry, pokeberry, sassafras, juneberry (Amelanchier), spiceberry (Benzoin), mountain-ash, chinaberry, hawthorn, burningbush (Euonymus), woodbine, flowering dogwood, and other cornels and viburnums. Professor Beal also gives a list of over 200 species of insects and 7 species of mollusks that have been found in the stomachs of robins.
W. J. Hamilton, Jr. (1935), during a study of four robins' nests, found that the food fed to the nestlings "during late May and early June consisted principally of cutworms." He says: "From the earliest period these larvae form a prominent share of the menu." Dr. Hamilton continues:
In order to determine the quantity of food eaten by the young birds, the freshly fed cutworm, adult insects, worms, etc., were occasionally removed from the young with blunt forceps, immediately upon being fed by the parent birds, and immediately weighed. This procedure was inaugurated while the birds were but a day or two old, and continued on alternate days until the young left the nest. By this method it was estimated the birds brought to the young approximately two grams of food at each visit, or a daily feeding of 200 grams of animal matter to the nestlings, be they three, four, or five.
The estimate is high for the early days in the nest and low for the days immediately proceeding the time of leaving the nest. It is thought to be fairly accurate and, at least, gives some clue to the amount of food eaten. Robins feed their young, apparently regardless if there be three or five, approximately 3.2 pounds of food during the two weeks while in the nest. The observations were made several weeks before cherries ripened and, because of this, the food consisted almost entirely of animal matter.
In a more recent article Dr. Hamilton (1943) gives the following interesting analysis "of 200 Robin droppings collected between May 1 and June 12, 1942. The figures indicate the percentage of frequency of occurrence of the different food items.
"Plants, 81.5: barberry, 61.0; sumach, 29.0; coral berry, 4.5.
"Animals, 93.5: beetles. . .82.5; millipedes, 38.5; ants. . . 27.0; cutworms, 9.5; sowbugs, 6.5; wireworms, 4.0; flies, 3.0; cockroaches, 1.5."
A. W. Perrior (1899) writes that the young birds are sometimes fed on hairy caterpillars, the "larvae of Clisicocampa (probably C. americana)"; Lotta A. Cleveland (1923) says that in 1922 the 17-year locusts on their emergence from the ground were used extensively as food for the young; John C. Phillips (1927) reports a remarkable instance of robins catching trout fry at the State Hatchery at Sutton, Mass.; A. C. Bent speaks of the robins' fondness for crab apples; and Floyd Bralliar (1922) tells of the intoxicating effect of the berries of the "umbrella china" tree. "They fall to the ground," he says, "and lie on their side, occasionally feebly fluttering, apparently as happy as any drunkard in his cups."
One of the familiar features of summer to those of us who live in the northern states within sight of a bit of greensward is the patrol of the robins over the grass in search of earthworms. Almost every little New England village has its common, a level bit of "green" near the town center, and these grass plots, from April, when the worms begin to stir, until the parching droughts of August dry up the grass, become the feeding grounds of all the robins in the neighborhood.
Sometimes half a dozen or more birds, widely scattered, may be seen running over the closely cropped grass, generally in amity, although sometimes one will fly at another and drive him off a little way. The birds take a short, straight run with a quick, tripping gait, then pause to look or listen for their prey. As they run, the back is nearly parallel to the ground, and the head is drawn back and settled between the shoulders, in the position of a decoy duck. When they stop to investigate the grass, they lean forward, turning the head to one side, bringing eye and ear to bear on a suspected spot, resembling the little semipalmated plovers as they feed on the wet sand of the seashore. The robin thrusts his bill deep among the grass blades, prods about the roots and, seizing a worm, leans backward, and bracing his feet against the pull, carefully draws the worm from the ground. Then, looping it up in his bill, he flies off to his nest or perhaps continues his search for another worm.
Robins are not always on the lookout for worms when they course over the grass. Often, early in spring, before the worms are within reach, and in late autumn, after they have retired deep under ground for the winter, robins frequent grassy fields. Here they are seeking smaller game which they see, apparently, above the ground. We may watch them snatching up, over and over again, little bits of food, tiny insects perhaps, which seem very numerous at these seasons among the grass and weeds of the open fields. Sometimes, when the grass is too long for the bird to run over it easily, he hops along with his head high and his primaries lowered, almost sweeping the grass, suggesting the Hylocichlae as they spring over the forest floor.
Tilford Moore writes from St. Paul, Minn., that the robins there seem to be fond of honeysuckle berries and feed them to their young. They "seem to prefer the red berries of the pink honeysuckle to the orange ones of the white honeysuckle. In fact, the yellow ones seem rarely to be touched until all the red berries are gone."
Behavior.--The robin impresses us as a bird of a nervous, highly excitable character, ever on the point of flaring up to an excess of emotion amounting almost to uncontrolled hysterics. For this reason it is a relief to see him in the role described above, quietly feeding on our lawn. The most frequent notes we hear the robin utter, perhaps, are fretful expressions of uneasiness, complaint, or resentment at our presence or at some other distraction, yet it is characteristic of him to break out with a phrase or two of song even in the midst of complaint. He seems always apprehensive, often standing alert and restless, wing tips lowered or twitching, head high, and tail pumping, on the watch for danger, and the least alarm upsets his equilibrium and startles him into vociferous, unrestrained remonstrance. Not an attractive nature, we think. How different the calm preoccupation of the little brown creeper!
Yet the robin has many good qualities: he is robust, confident, a straightforward personality, and no more nervous, perhaps, than many another American. Morning and evening he adds a charming hour to the summer day when he and all his neighbors join in a chorus of singing, in the twilight before the sun rises and after it sets.
It is easy to recognize the robin on the wing, even at a distance. He flies with a very straight back, like a runner with head thrown back, and his breast appears puffed out, expanded, giving a curved outline to the underparts in contrast to the long, straight line of the back and tail. The wings, at the end of a stroke, are not clapped close to the sides, as in the flight of a blackbird or woodpecker. The robin nevertheless accomplishes a full stroke by flipping the tips of the wings well backward so that, at the end of the stroke, the primary feathers of each side are nearly parallel, while the wrist remains out a little way from the body. The wings move rapidly and regularly and there is commonly no soaring or sailing.
A. Dawes DuBois sends a note to Mr. Bent describing fearless behavior of the robin. He says: "The robins that nested on my rain pipe became almost entirely fearless. When there were well-grown young in the nest, the male, darting from a tree, struck me a sharp blow on the forehead when I looked out of my window, and one day, when I was at the window, the female flew into the room and grabbed me by the hair with her claws." He adds: "A nest built in a Virginia creeper was only about 3 feet from a house wren's nesting box. Sometimes the robins drove the wrens away, but usually there seemed to be no friction between the two species."
A. C. Bent speaks of the robins' sun bath. "Even on the hottest days," he says, "I often see a robin taking a sun bath on my lawn; he crouches on the grass with wings spread, or lies over on one side, with the wing on the sunny side uplifted, so that the sun penetrates under the fluffed-out feathers of the body. It may remain in this position for several minutes, sometimes for many minutes, as if it enjoyed the warmth of the sun, or derived some hygienic benefit from it. Again in a light, drizzling rain, I have seen them taking rain baths, standing erect for some time, with the bill pointing upward, so that the rain washed the plumage and drained off."
Speaking of territory, Aretas A. Saunders (1938) says: "Robins seem to have territories and to guard them, but they must be small, and probably a large part of the area, where food is found, such as groups of berry-bearing bushes, forms neutral territory. One gets the same impression of neutral territory in this bird, when noting several robins hunting earthworms on a lawn during the nesting season. There seem to be no earthworm hunting tracts here [Allegany State Park], for earthworms are scarce and hard to find. How small the territories are is shown by finding nests rather close to each other on the school grounds."
This report is in accord with Hervey Brackbill's experience. He states: "The extreme points at which I saw one pair of color-banded robins that nested in a suburban neighborhood of detached houses indicated a territory extending about sixty yards north and south and sixty yards east and west. Other robins nested closely about on all sides. Both adults defended the territory. Of seven defenses which I saw, the male made five and the female two. Strange robins, both adult and immature, were the object of attack five times, a blue jay once, and a gray squirrel once."
There are three records, W. A. Marshall (1921), F. G. McIntosh (1922), and Harry F. Binger (1932), each describing a robin's capture of a small snake, presumably as food for its young. Robins not infrequently attack their own images reflected in a windowpane, sometimes returning to the attack for days. J. A. Allen (1879) reports a yellow warbler acting in the same manner, but most of the records of this habit refer to the robin, probably because it is the most conspicuous bird of a belligerent nature which breeds about our houses.
J. W. Lippincott (1912) speaks of robins feeding on the ocean beach. He says: "On August 20, 1912, a number of unusually large, dark-colored birds could be seen running along the beach [at Watch Hill, R.I.], which upon closer inspection, proved to be Robins. They did not mingle with the little shore birds, but followed the retreating waves in much the same manner as these, and evidently ate the same food," and Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1905) says that they frequent "the dry parts of the beaches, the sand dunes, and the salt marshes."
May Thacher Cooke (1937) reports on the age of a bird. A robin, "banded at Philadelphia, Pa., on August 18, 1925, by Dr. William Pepper, was retrapped at the same place on September 25, 1929, and May 5, 1932," and Alexander Wilson (Wilson and Bonaparte, 1832) recounts the following story: "A lady, who resides near Tarrytown, on the banks of the Hudson, informed me that she raised and kept one of these birds for seventeen years; which sung as well, and looked as sprightly, at that age as ever; but was at last unfortunately destroyed by a cat."
Margaret Morse Nice (1933) speaks of a pair of robins "having been mated three years in succession. In 1932 the male arrived February 10; in 1933 on January 25th. . . . His mate never comes till March."
It was not until comparatively recently that the robins' habit of roosting during the breeding season was brought to the attention of ornithologists. The older writers, Wilson, Nuttall, and Audubon, say nothing of the habit.
In 1890 William Brewster published a comprehensive account of the robin roosts in the neighborhood of Cambridge, Mass., and showed that a large number of the breeding birds in the region gathered every evening at a roost and spent the night there during most of the breeding season. He had been aware of the habit for over 20 years, and he traces the history of several roosts during this period. He says (1890):
Our Massachusetts Robin roosts are invariably in low-lying woods which are usually swampy and are composed of such deciduous trees as maples, oaks, chestnuts, and birches, sometimes mixed with white pines. I have never known Robins actually to spend the night, however, in the latter, or indeed in any species of evergreen, except at Falmouth, Mass., where there has been a small gathering, these past two seasons, in a white cedar swamp. The trees in the roost may be tall and old with spreading tops, or crowded saplings only twenty to thirty feet in height, but it is essential that they furnish a dense canopy of foliage of sufficient extent to accommodate the birds which assemble there. As a rule, the woods are remote from buildings, and surrounded by open fields or meadows, but the latter may be hemmed in closely by houses, as is the case with a roost which at present exists in the very heart of Cambridge. A roost once established is resorted to nightly, not only during an entire season, but for many successive seasons. Nevertheless it is sometimes abandoned either with or without obvious cause, as the following account of the movements of the Cambridge Robins during the past twenty odd years will show.
We can form some idea of the multitude of birds that may compose these gatherings from the following quotation from Mr. Brewster's article:
I made no counts at the Maple Swamp roost, but as I remember it, it never contained more than about 2000 birds. Its successor at Little River was not only very much larger, but if my notes and memory can be trusted, was by far the largest gathering that has ever fallen under my observation. Thus I find that on the evening of Aug. 4, 1875, I estimated the Robins which came in on two sides only at 25,000. This estimate was not mere guess work but was based on a count of the birds which passed during an average minute, multiplied by the number of minutes occupied by the passage of the bulk of the flight. Such a method, of course, is far from exact, and it very probably gave exaggerated results, but a deduction of fifty percent would surely eliminate all possible exaggeration. As the birds were coming in quite as numerously on the two sides opposite to those where my estimate was made, it follows that the total, after making the above deduction, was still 25,000, and this I feel sure was far below the actual number. ***
Continuing, Mr. Brewster adds: "Most of the roosts which I have visited are resorted to by other birds besides Robins." Among these he mentions bronzed grackles, cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, kingbirds, Baltimore orioles, cedar waxwings, and brown thrashers.
Brewster (1906) also gives an interesting account of the behavior of the robins at a roost in his dooryard in the city of Cambridge. He says:
Late in June, 1902, they began assembling every evening--to my infinite surprise--in some ancient lilacs which form a dense and rather extensive thicket in the garden immediately behind our house. At first there were not more than twenty or thirty birds, but their numbers rapidly increased until by the close of summer we often counted as many as four or five hundred. . . . During the whole of May the roost was frequented nightly by fifty or more birds, all apparently old males. By the middle of June these were joined by the first broods of young, and a month or so later by the old females with their second broods. Thus the number of Robins steadily increased until early in August, when it probably reached its maximum and when we sometimes noted upwards of seven hundred birds in the course of a single evening. The frequent presence of members of my family on the back piazza (which is only a few yards from the lilacs) when the evening flight was coming in, gave the Robins some concern at first, but they soon became perfectly reconciled to it. . . .
As the piazza faces a little opening about which the lilacs are grouped on the remaining three sides, it commands an unobstructed view of the roost and affords rare facilities for watching the birds at close range. I have been interested to learn that a sound resembling the pattering of hail, which is heard when they are fluttering among the foliage and which I had formerly supposed to be caused by their wings striking the leaves, is really made, at least in part, by their bills.
When two or more of them are contesting for possession of the same perch they first threaten one another with wide-opened beaks and then bring their mandibles rapidly and forcibly together, thereby producing the sound above described. After they have quite ceased their calling and fluttering one may pass--even in bright moonlight--within a yard or two of the branches where they are roosting by dozens without disturbing them. They invariably begin to leave the roost at daybreak, usually departing singly or in small parties, and scattering in every direction. When the exodus is performed in this manner, it often continues until sunrise. On several occasions, however, I have seen practically the entire body of birds leave simultaneously in the morning twilight, in one immense flock, with a prodigious whirring of wings. The evening flights vary similarly in character but to a less degree. Ordinarily the incoming birds are arriving more or less continuously for half an hour or more, but occasionally the majority of them will appear in the course of ten or twelve minutes, this usually happening when the weather is stormy.
Other references to accounts of the roosting of robins are: A. J. Stover (1912), Arthur R. Abel (1914), William Youngworth (1929), Mrs. J. Frederick Clarke (1930), Joseph C. Howell (1940), and Bradford Torrey (1892).
Tilford Moore writes to us that when some heavy bombing planes were flying over in formation, a robin in his backyard became very much excited, as it would if a cat were about, flitting from one perch to another, with much flicking of wings and tail and worried calls.
Voice.--The robin is at his best when he is singing. In the long choruses at morning and evening, and frequently for shorter periods during the day, he devotes himself to song, and as he stands motionless on a high perch, his head thrown back a little, whistling his happy phrases, his nerves relax, it seems, and a thrushlike calm comes over him: for the time, he seems at peace. Cheerily, cheery is a favorite rendering of his song, aptly suggesting by sound and meaning the joyous tenor of the phrases, and the liquid quality of the notes. The song lacks the artistry and poetic quality of the Hylocichlae, and the gentle charm of the bluebird's voice, but it is nevertheless an earnest, pleasing expression of happy contentment. It is generally a long-continued performance made up of paired phrases of two or three syllables each, often alternating up and down in pitch, given with perfect regularity at the rate of about two phrases per second. Close attention, however, will detect, after every few phrases, an almost imperceptible break in the beat, so that an uninterrupted run of a dozen phrases is rare. Frequently in the course of a long period of singing the bird pauses for a longer interval, perhaps for a second's duration, and then continues his song. Often, too, we hear a singing robin raise the pitch of his phrases higher and higher as the song goes on, apparently striving to attain a note beyond his range, until his voice breaks into hissing phrases without tone quality, the acme of his attempt. This peculiarity is characteristic also of the hermit thrush's song.
The robin's song is so characteristic, with its regular beat, its full round tone, and the robust quality of cheerfulness that pervades it, that we recognize it instantly. Yet as we listen to the robins in our dooryards singing day after day, we soon learn to distinguish some of the birds by slight differences in their songs; by a peculiar note recurring in a phrase, by the number of phrases which compose a group, or by a tempo slower and more rapid than the normal rate of the song. Also we notice sometimes that a bird will take a stand to sing his evening chorus on a branch, or perhaps the roof of our house, each night on the same perch, and if we are able to mark down this bird by some peculiarity in his song, we shall find that it is always the same bird that comes to the perch and that he often returns to it to sing during the day.
Aretas A. Saunders sends this analysis of the robins' song to Mr. Bent: "The song of the robin is long-continued; made up of phrases with short pauses between them. These phrases are repeated, alternated, or otherwise arranged in groups of two to five, with longer pauses between the groups. Each phrase is composed of one to four notes, but most commonly two or three. The notes are frequently joined by liquid consonant sounds like r or l. I have records of portions of the songs of 49 different robins; in these the pitch varies from A'' to B''', one tone more than an octave. My records are fairly complete for 24 of these birds, and in these the average variation in pitch is about three tones, at least two tones, and the greatest five and a half. The time of the song is regularly rhythmical, the phrases and pauses being of even length. Ordinarily the robin sings at a rate of two phrases per second. In the very early morning they often sing faster and more continuously, the phrases not being broken up into groups. Then the rate is about two and a half phrases per second. Individual robins differ from each other in the phrases they use and the order in which they sing them. While many of the phrases are common to robins in general, nearly every individual will have some peculiar phrase. The average number of phrases used by one individual is about 10, but there is great variation: one bird I listened to for some time had apparently only 2; another had but 3, while a third unusual bird had 26. Two- and three-note phrases are the rule, but a single note used as a phrase is not uncommon. Only twice have I heard a phrase of four notes."
Hervey Brackbill writes: "The robin frequently sings on the ground, sometimes for minutes at a stretch while standing at one place, sometimes intermittently between hops or runs in its foraging. I have also noticed a robin singing while on the wing; one sang a three-note phrase during a fifty-foot flight from one tree to another in the early morning."
The robin is apparently the first New England bird to awake in the morning. A few males begin to sing in darkness, at the earliest dim sign of approaching dawn; soon, as the light strengthens, more and more birds awake and join the singing until, gaining in volume, the song swells into a general chorus which lasts all through the morning twilight. I remember that William Brewster was much impressed by the element of drama in the great wave of robins' song which sweeps overhead every morning during the breeding season in the darkness before daylight, and continues on, westward, keeping pace with the sun, but beginning far in advance of its light, as it moves across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
As July advances, the morning chorus, which the robins have been performing since early in April as an almost formal observance in the hush before dawn, begins to fade out and wane. By the middle of the month, if we listen at our window as the sun approaches the horizon, and its light increases to the degree when robins are accustomed to awake and sing, there is silence--or at most a single robin singing alone, far away; we hear only the birds of night, the killdeer and the nighthawk. But after half an hour of waiting, as day comes nearer, when the gray of night no longer shuts in our vision, and we look out on a green world again, we may see a robin shoot swiftly past our window, then another, and then others, flying to the trees near the house. Soon we hear them singing, rather freely to be sure, but not in the organized chorus of early summer.
This delay in the morning singing is doubtless due to the fact that at this season the male robins do not spend the night near the nesting sites but at a roost to which they escort the young birds of the first brood. If we watch the fading sky at evening, we may see the robins of the neighborhood start off toward the roost, trailing along in loose order, after calling restlessly in the trees for a while, and perhaps singing a little. The evening chorus, too, is over for the season.
Horace W. Wright (1912) and Francis H. Allen (1913) have published the results of careful studies of "The Morning Awakening" to which the reader is referred.
Robins sing freely from early in April to the close of the nesting season late in July. In August and September they sing infrequently, but later in the autumn and even in winter we hear sporadic songs from the wandering flocks of late migrants and wintering birds.
Albert R. Brand (1938) gives the approximate mean vibration frequency of the robin's song as 2,800, a little lower than that of the red-eyed vireo, 3,600, and of the scarlet tanager, 2,925, birds whose songs resemble somewhat the song of the robin. However, the highest recorded note of the redeye is much higher, 5,850, than the highest note of the robin, 3,300.
The robin has a variety of notes in addition to his familiar song. Some of these, although as well known perhaps as the song, are not easily suggested by syllables. Many observers have their own set of renderings in phrases and syllables, which represent to them the various utterances of the robin, but these renderings, even for the same note, differ from one another in marked degree. Also, a feature that adds to the difficulty in describing robins' notes is that they resemble one another sometimes rather closely, so that it is hard to draw the line between them, to decide whether we are dealing with two different notes or variants of one note.
The following list, it is hoped, will serve to differentiate 10 common notes of the robin. The syllables, of course, are merely approximations of what we hear, and the few words of comment aim to help out the shortcomings that must arise when we attempt to transcribe into letters the voice of a bird. 1. Seech-ook; an exclamatory note which the young robin utters soon after leaving the nest. 2. Pleent, tut-tut-tut; the first note, which might be written plint, and sometimes sounds more like week, is usually single, but may be repeated once or twice, and may be given without the tut notes. It is a sort of gasp, accented, higher in pitch than the succeeding, more rapid tuts. The latter (huh suggests the aspirated quality) may be likened to the interjection commonly written "humph," representing a low-spoken exclamation. 3. Sss, tut-tut-tut; a sibilant variation of the above, a tremulous, sibilant sound, a shaky squeal, followed by troubled sobbing. 4. Skeet, skeet; two or three high screams, uttered as if in haste. 5. Seech, each-each-each; a screaming variant of 2 and 3. It may be given see-seech with the second note accented and on a higher pitch. A common note, suggesting unrest. 6. He-he-he-he-he; a rapid, laughing giggle, suggesting sometimes a note of the red-winged blackbird, or in lighter, more musical form it may run quickly up and down the scale. This is the note which reminded Schuyler Mathews (1921) of the once popular song "Hiawatha." 7. Chill-ill-ill-ill; varying from 3 to 8 notes, given in a tinkling voice, the chill struck firmly, the ills successively losing force and dropping slightly in pitch to the final ill. The rhythm strongly suggests the ringing of the kind of bell formerly used on ambulances and police wagons. In tone of voice and in pitch this note resembles the song but differs from it in phrasing. 8. Hisselly-hisselly; sibilant, whispered phrases arranged as in song. It is associated with courtship apparently. The hiss may also be given in one long syllable, repeated slowly with downward inflection. 9. Sssp; a faint, trembling hiss, a refinement of the shriek (4) often given when a bird starts away in flight, and at the close of the day as it flies to its roost. 10. A low, sobbing note with a deep undertone; a note of trouble. A modification of the tut or huh, but clearly recognizable in quality and slow delivery as an entity. It is given when a cat is prowling near.
Tilford Moore tells in his notes of June 19, 1941, of a young robin's attempt at song: "He was in our lilac, not three feet from our dining room window, facing us, so we could see his speckled breast moving with his song. The song was a squeaky and quiet effort, much like the baby feeding cry in tone, but definitely a song after the adult morning song pattern."
Enemies.--The three following reports show that snakes are sometimes enemies of the robin: Ethel M. Spindler (1933) states that three young robins were taken from a nest 13 feet from the ground and swallowed by two blacksnakes; Laura Raymond Strickland (1934) saw a blacksnake eat a robin's egg; and Harold B. Wood (1937) writes of a robin strangled by a snake, Liopeltis vernalis. "The snake was wound so tightly around the bird's neck, by four complete turns, that it could not be shaken loose."
Ruthven Dean (1878) quotes from a letter written by the granddaughter of Audubon describing a "deadly combat" between a robin and a mole in which, apparently, they killed each other.
C. M. Arnold (1907), at a time when English sparrows were more abundant than they are at present, calls attention to their habit of following a robin about and snatching earthworms away from it.
John Lewis Childs (1913) notes the destruction of robins by "the most severe electric storm I have ever witnessed." It "annihilated the Robins that live in the trees about my lawn. Thirty-six were picked up the next morning on about an acre of ground, and others in the near vicinity brought the total up to about fifty. The English Sparrows were very abundant also but very few were killed; the Starlings escaped uninjured as far as I can learn. . . . The birds were evidently blown out of the trees where they were roosting and perished from the awful wetting they were subjected to on the ground."
Predatory hawks often capture robins. Walter Faxon, years ago, was standing in his garden watching a robin, near at hand, running over the grass. Suddenly, like a thunderbolt, a little sharp-shinned hawk struck the robin, pinning it to the ground and covering it all over with its open wings. Mr. Faxon frightened the hawk away, but the robin was dead, killed in an instant, its life snuffed out by a bird no larger than itself.
The domestic cat is the most destructive enemy of the birds that breed about our houses. It has been estimated that a cat will capture, on an average, 50 birds in a season, and the helpless young robins provide a large part of the kill.
Herbert Friedmann (1929) says of the robin in relation to the cowbird: "Probably an uncommon victim. It is hard to state definitely the extent to which this bird is affected by the Cowbird because the parasitic eggs are practically always thrown out. Half a dozen or more records from New York, Connecticut, Iowa, North Dakota, and Alberta have come to my notice."
Harold S. Peters (1933 and 1936) reports the presence in the plumage of the robin of 17 species of external parasites--lice 6, flies 4, ticks 2, and mites 5.
In former times a great number of robins were shot for food. Audubon (1841) says: "In all the southern states. . .their presence is productive of a sort of jubilee among the gunners, and the havoc made among them with bows and arrows, blowpipes, guns, and traps of different sorts, is wonderful. Every gunner brings them home by bagsful, and the markets are supplied with them at a very cheap rate. Several persons may at this season stand round the foot of a tree loaded with berries, and shoot the greater part of the day, so fast do the flocks of Robins succeed each other. They are then fat and juicy, and afford excellent eating."
Soon after rearing their second broods of young--most of which are able to shift for themselves before the middle of August--our Robins change not only their haunts but their habits, also. Abandoning their diet of earthworms, and assembling in flocks, they now range widely over the country in search of berries of various kinds, on which they subsist almost wholly during the remainder of the year. It is true that they revisit our city gardens in early September when the rum cherries are ripe, and that even later in the year we occasionally see them running about in the old familiar way over our lawns and flower-beds, but throughout the autumn they spend most of their time in retired fields, pastures and woodlands, or in swampy thickets bordering brooks and meadows. Most if not all of our local-bred birds depart for the south before the close of October. In November their places are taken by migrants from further north, which sometimes appear suddenly in immense flocks and, after literally flooding the country for several successive days, pass on further to the southward. Robins are ordinarily scarcer in December than at any other season, and occasionally they are almost wholly absent during that month.
Francis Beach White (1937), speaking of the "stragglers in the woods" late in summer, says: "It is now that their habits undergo a complete change, for these birds are now like different beings, shy, furtive, wary, excitable. You may hear a rustling in the foliage, a soft 'whut-whut,' and all vanish unseen, or you may come on one that assumes the motionless pose of a Hermit Thrush on a branch in a dim thicket."
There are days also in mid-September when a furor of excitement seems to possess the flocks of robins in the woods. They are restless and noisy, moving about high in the trees, and making long flights in companies of half a dozen or more; a businesslike air of migration pervades the gatherings.
On September 4, 1931, Wendell Taber saw robins in actual migration. He was on the tableland on Mount Katahdin, Maine, at an elevation of 4,300 feet in a dense fog when 24 robins flew past him, near together, at close range in a southerly direction. He says: "Visibility was limited to a few yards, and I have no doubt that I saw only a small part of the flight. A deviation of a few miles to either side would have avoided passing over the high range."
Winter.--Most of the robins pass southward in fall to spend the winter in the milder climate of the Middle Atlantic and Gulf states but occasionally flocks of considerable size remain in the northern states and eastern Canada where they are exposed to very low temperatures. They have been reported as present during the winter in the province of Quebec, Canada, by Napoleon A. Comeau (1891), in southern Maine by Nathan Clifford Brown (1911), in the Upper Mississippi Valley by Miss Althea R. Sherman (1912), and in Nova Scotia by Harrison F. Lewis (1919).
In the southern states robins gather in almost incredible numbers. Mrs. Lotta T. Melcher writes to Mr. Bent of watching robins flying to a winter roost in Florida. She estimated that no fewer than 50,000 birds assembled to spend the night "in low evergreen bushes, in a cypress swamp." She says: "I could think of nothing but being out in a snowstorm whose giant flakes never came to the ground."
Lester W. Smith also writes of the invasions of robins during the winter. "When a cold snap descends into the Florida peninsula," he says, "with real truck-killing effect, there may come an invasion of robins. A multitude of robins appears suddenly on the lawns, and particularly in and under the cabbage palmetto trees, for it is on the abundant, wild-cherrylike fruit of this native palm that the robins feed, regardless of the protestations of the resident mockingbirds. When the robins arrive here in vast numbers, the cabbage palms of the entire district are soon stripped of their fruit."
Julian D. Corrington (1922), speaking of the bird in winter in Mississippi, says: "The Robin here is by no means a bird of the lawns and gardens as in the north in summer, but is as wild as the wildest and frequents only remote districts for feeding and roosting."
Otto Widmann (1895) gives this interesting account of a winter robin roost in Missouri, a contrast to the summer roosts of the north:
The lower parts of the marsh, with the exception of the slough itself, are overgrown with reeds five feet high, bending over in all directions. These reeds are matted into a regular thicket which is not easily penetrated. In the fall the reeds are dry and yellow, some cinnamon and even dark chestnut brown.
It is in these reeds that the Robin finds a safe retreat for the night, sheltered equally well from wind and cold, rain and snow, and comparatively safe from prowling enemies. During the day nothing betrays the roost. Not a Robin is seen in the neighborhood all forenoon and for several hours of the afternoon. An hour or two before sunset a few may arrive and stay in the trees along King's Lake, but nobody would suspect anything extraordinary until half an hour before sunset when the great influx begins.
The new arrivals no more fly to the trees but alight on the ground, some in the wheat field, some in the meadows, some on the corn and hay stacks, but the majority flies directly into the reeds, while the others shift from place to place until they, too disappear. They do not come up in troops like Blackbirds, but the whole air seems for a while to be filled with them, and standing in the marsh, one can easily see that they come from all points of the compass, all aiming toward a certain tract of reeds, a piece of about forty acres on some of the lowest ground where the last remains of water are now vanishing, leaving heaps of dead and dying fishes in the puddles (mostly dog, cat, and buffalo fishes).
When unmolested the Robins are not long in settling down and out of sight amongst the high and thickly matted reeds, and it is not nearly dark when the last has disappeared and nothing indicates the presence of so many thousand Robins but an occasional clatter, soon to give way to entire silence. If one enters their domain at night, they start with a scold, one by one, and not until one approaches very closely, to drop down again at no great distance.
Associating with them in the roost sleep a goodly number of
Rusty Blackbirds, while the Bronzed Grackles keep somewhat apart.
They arrive in troops with the last Robins and leave also a little
later in the morning.
American Robin* Turdus migratorius [Eastern Robin]
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1949. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 196: 14 - 45. United States Government Printing Office