Eric is an amateur birder and photographer who is amazed by the natural world just about every day.
The American Robin of Spring
The American Robin is a migratory bird that has the common sense to fly south when winter is on the way, and not come back until springtime when the weather gets better. In fact, the first Robin sighting of spring is an occasion for rejoicing in the colder climates.
If you live in the Northern United States or in Canada you probably start your Robin watch in March. A step ahead of the weather and more reliable than that silly groundhog, these birds give us hope that a long winter is coming to an end. Sure, we could still get blasted by a blizzard, but at least with the Robins near we know it can’t last for long.
Even if you aren’t into birding, you probably know the these colorful creatures. They are, perhaps, one of the most identifiable birds in North America. They’re highly visible in the way they hunt in lawns and grassy areas, and their nests and eggs are easily recognized. If you live in Michigan, Connecticut or Wisconsin the American Robin is your state bird, but you probably knew that.
But there is a lot you likely don't know about the Robin. For instance, did you know it doesn't always fly south every winter? In some pockets, they may stick around all winter long, even during the very cold months.
While they won't come to your bird feeder, if you keep an eye out they aren't hard to spot in the summer months. Read on to uncover more facts about the American Robin.
American Robin Overview
The North American Robin, or by its scientific name Turdus Migratorius, is a medium-sized bird of the order Passeriformes, or what we call a songbird. It’s considered a member of the thrush family, a true thrush along with the Eastern Bluebird. A black, brownish or dark-gray body and head along with its bright reddish-orange or rusty colored breast make the Robin very easy to identify.
This bird benefits tremendously from human activity, as we make hunting for worms, beetles and other insects easy. Robins can frequently be seen on summer afternoons, inspecting lawns for something to snack on.
Especially when nesting, they can be stubborn foes for many small animals such as marauding chipmunks. But they are not impervious to predators, and their open, ground-feeding lifestyle makes them especially vulnerable to cats and hawks. Baby Robins endure threats from other birds that may raid the nest and predators such as raccoons and even squirrels.
Robin Habitat and Your Yard
Robins will not come to your bird feeder for birdseed. In the wild, these birds eat fruit and berries along with invertebrates such as worms, grubs, and beetles. But this doesn’t mean you can’t encourage the American Robin to come around with a little planning.
If you have taken the time to transform your yard into a bird habitat you are already a step ahead. Well-placed vegetation makes for good hunting grounds. Freshly mowed lawns are particularly enticing. When we plant flower and vegetable gardens they attract insects, and that means lunch for an enterprising Robin.
You can try offering fruit or mealworms in a ground feeder, although if you are doing all of the above you probably don’t need to put out these special foods to attract the American Robin. They will also appreciate a birdbath or other water feature, and you’ll frequently see them taking a quick dip on summer days.
American Robin Migration
In many parts of the country, Robins may remain year-round, but in most places, they are long gone by the time the snow starts to fall. They gather in flocks in the early fall and then, one day, they’ve disappeared.
Just as the first Robin of spring is a reason for celebration, once you realize they aren’t around anymore it’s quite a depressing feeling. So where do they go, and what do they do? And what do they eat in the winter if they stay?
The Robin’s urge to migrate is typical of why birds fly south for the winter. When food is no longer easily available, they know it is time to leave. Some insect-eating birds can survive on what they find in the bark of trees throughout the snowy months, but they struggle once the ground freezes and earthworms migrate deeper into the soil.
If Robins stay throughout the winter in your area of the country it’s because they’ve been able to find a reliable food supply, or possibly because winter has been mild enough to prevent the ground from consistently freezing. They can also get through the winter by eating berries left on bushes.
Robin Behavior in Spring
So, Robins will move with the food, but what makes them come back? Just as they leave in flocks, they will often return in flocks. The first sightings in the spring is often a dozen of them scattered on your lawn.
But these flocking Robins are usually still on the move, and only once they are spotted in pairs or as solitary birds can you assume they’ve arrived at their breeding range. Singing is another indication that they’ve come home, as this means they are communicating with other birds in what they consider their territory rather than focusing on migration.
The male will usually come back before the female, and spend some time scouting out his territory and singing his song. Visually, males are distinguished from females by their black or very dark gray heads, dark gray backs, and vibrant orange breasts. In comparison, females are lighter-colored all around, with lighter gray backs, gray heads, and more subdued orange-brown breasts.
If you live someplace where winters are rough you know the joy of spotting the first Robins of spring. Their song is background music for warm, sweet summers, and when they start to come back around it is a sure sign that the worst of the cold and dark is behind us.
American Robin Nesting Habits
Robins begin to nest nearly as soon as they arrive in their summer breeding area, and are capable of raising up to three clutches of three or four eggs throughout the spring and summer months.
After the hassle of the courtship, the breeding pair will remain together throughout the season. They may locate their first nest of the spring in an evergreen tree for better cover, but just as well they may nest in a deciduous tree with a protective structure nearby such as a house.
The female will build the nest and incubate the eggs, but both parents take turns bringing food to the chicks once they hatch. They're doting parents who take their jobs seriously. Robins are notoriously aggressive in defending their nest, challenging all comers, including humans who might wander too close.
Chicks leave the nest a couple of weeks after hatching, but will still trail behind their parents looking for food until they are able to fend for themselves. Young Robins may resemble chubbier, fluffier versions of their parents for their first weeks out in the world.
American Robin FAQ
Here are some frequently asked questions about the American Robin:
Are American Robins Territorial?
During the mating season, American Robins can be territorial. Male Robins claim their territory in the spring and defend it for other males, often by fighting. You will often see them in the treetops singing as a way to declare that they have laid claim to a territory.
Will American Robins attack humans?
Nesting Robins may not tolerate other animals they see as threats coming around their nest. That includes humans. Robins may “dive bomb” people who come too close. Unfortunately, sometimes Robins build their nests in areas where humans frequent, such as above the door of a house, and this leads to conflict.
How long until Robin chicks leave the nest?
After American Robins lay their eggs it can take up to two weeks until the chicks hatch. After that, it will be another two weeks until the chicks leave the nest. In most areas, Robins have two or three broods per mating season, though they may not use the same nest for each one.
What does it mean when you see a Robin?
According to common folklore, when you see a Robin it means the gloomy days of winter are over and spring is on the way! Of course, many a massive snowstorm has hit after the Robins have returned. The Robin is also a sign of good luck.
Where do American Robins go in winter?
During the winter months, Robins in the north gather in large foraging flocks and migrate to the southern United States and Mexico. However, some may stick around if they are able to find a viable food source. Spotting an American Robin in Canada or the Northern United States during the winter months is not unusual.
Do Robins mate for life?
No, Robins do not mate for life. While American Robin pairs will often stay together during a breeding season, and even reunite the following year, they do not necessarily mate for life. Successful Robin pairs are more likely to reunite year after year.
When the Robins Fly South
By the time the weather starts to get colder the chicks have grown up and are ready to migrate. We'll begin to see Robins congregating in large flocks. Suddenly, one day, they're gone.
Before the snow falls they will leave us once again, and begin their journey south to warmer weather. They’ll continue on until they find a spot where food is abundant, and those of us left in the north won’t likely see them again until the long, cold winter has passed.
When that time comes, once again the first Robins of spring are a welcome sight. Seemingly on cue, the Red-winged Blackbirds and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are soon back as well, and the Eastern Chipmunks begin their summer-long task of raiding bird feeders to bolster their underground caches.
Everything in nature follows cycles. Spring is a time of change and renewal, and it all starts with the first Robin.
We’ve named songs after them, you can paint your living room the color of their eggs, and there is even a super-hero sidekick bearing their name. It's definitely one of the most interesting songbirds we have in North America. The colorful American Robin has etched a place in our culture, unlike any other bird.
American Robins Migration Patterns
The following sites were important references in creating this article. I suggest visiting them to learn more about the American Robin and birding.
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology - All About Birds: American Robin
- Audubon Guide to Birds of North America: American Robin
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on July 22, 2019:
@Wendylucka - If you think they were too small to leave on their own then the news probably isn't good. Unfortunately, baby birds fall victim to all kinds of terrible things even before they leave the nest. Other birds sometimes prey on them. There is an unlikely but possible chance a squirrel could be to blame. A windstorm could have blown them out of the nest, or even their own movements might have knocked them to the ground where they could have been scooped up by predators.
Very sad, but so goes nature I suppose.
Wendylucka on July 21, 2019:
We had a Robin's nest in our tree just outside one of the bedrooms. The babies were small with mouths open constantly. We came back from a 3 day trip to find nothing there. The tree could not have stood anything heavier than a squirrel. What may have happened? No sign of them, just an empty nest!:(
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on June 25, 2019:
@Teddy - From what I understand, it could be either. Sometimes Robins push their chicks from the nest, but it could also be the josteling of the other chicks that accidentally knocked it out.
Teddy 2bear on June 24, 2019:
I have seen robins nest in the same tree year after year. They lay 3 eggs and when the chicks grow larger and are almost ready to leave the nest, I have noticed that the largest chick always ends up on the ground below the nest and dies. Are the parents pushing it out of the nest or are it's greedy habits making it fall out?
Robbie on June 21, 2019:
@Eric- thank you. For many years perhaps every other year. Under deck near stairs Robin's nest. Always enjoy. This is the first year. May 21st first brood with four babies. About two weeks later. A Robin was back in Same nest. Hence previous question. Today confirmation. Two babies two blue eggs.
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on June 19, 2019:
@Robbie - American Robins typically have two or three broods per breeding season -- one in the spring and one or two later in the summer. They will build a new nest each time.
Robbie on June 18, 2019:
Do Robins have more than one "litter "
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on May 07, 2019:
@Maxine - Unless you actually bother the nest I expect they will continue to come back to it. The eggs should hatch soon, and the chicks will leave the nest in a few weeks. If you can avoid disturbing them during that time it would be great, but obviously you have to get in and out of your house too.
Maxine on May 06, 2019:
If you open your door by the nest and they fly away do they come back to it and how long before eggs hatch they made a nest on my porch light right by my patio door I am afraid to disturb them
Alice on April 21, 2019:
Yes, they are four beautiful blue egg in the nest. I tried to take picture of them, but not successful in it. I notice the daddy takes turn with the mommy protecting the nest. I want remove it until they all leave. I hope soon. Thanks for touching bases with me.
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on April 19, 2019:
@Alice - It sounds like there are eggs in the nest already. When they hatch and the chicks leave the nest you can take down the wreath. You're probably looking at 3-4 weeks. The bird will build a new nest somewhere else later in the summer when it is time for a new brood.
In the meantime, try to enjoy your visitor. :-)
Alice on April 18, 2019:
I left my Christmas wreath on my door up until now. Come to find out a Robin has build a nest on top of this wreath. It was so fast that I didn't notice it until last week. This bird now sit almost all day on this nest, only until I open the door she moves. How long do I have to wait for this to be over. Never would I leave my Christmas wreath on my door this long again.
Eric Dockett (author) from USA on August 05, 2015:
Gwenneth Leane on August 04, 2015:
This is an interesting article. The bird is very beautiful. I have been interested in your bird articles