Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: American Robin

Robin is one of the most native and democratic of our birds; he is one of the family, and seems much nearer to us than those rare, exotic, visitants . . . 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.

--John Burroughs 1913

The American Robin, Turdus migratorius, is one of the first birds children learn to identify. Robins reside on our lawns, in our gardens, fields, and pastures, and they literally "set the standard" for all other songbirds. Many nature lovers judge the size of all other birds by whether they are the same size, larger, or smaller than the American Robin. They even possess their own colors: eggs are robin's-egg blue and their breast is robin-red. A light spring snow coming after the bird returns is referred to as a "robin snow."

The American Robin is the largest of the North American thrushes with a length of 9-11 inches. It has a reddish breast, incomplete white eye rings, white corners on its tail, and a dark head. The female's head is gray while the male's is black. Robins go through one complete molt each year between late July and early October.

Robins are one of the few native species to have benefited from human development. Prior to European settlement, they were found only in open areas within forests and woods. In 1932 Frank Farley wrote, "When the hard prairie lands were broken up, it was noted that earthworms were absent, but with the arrival of settlers, it was not long before the worms began to appear. . . ." By the 1930s, Robins had become North America's most widespread bird, and today they are one of the most widespread birds of the western hemisphere and one of the most adaptable, occurring from the Arctic to the tropics. Temperature is a key factor in their existence--they need thawed ground so they can dig earthworms.

The American Robin (Turdus migratorius), a favorite "harbinger of spring."

In the spring and summer Robins feed primarily on the ground, searching for earthworms, beetles, and caterpillars. In fall and winter their diet is primarily berries. The classic Robin-hunting behavior is to run or hop briskly across a lawn, stop, cock its head sideways, and then quickly grab a wiggling worm. A Robin's eyes are only slightly movable, so it must tilt its head to focus on objects. Head-tilting offers the greatest visual sharpness, and while it appears the Robin is listening, it is actually carefully looking.

Robins tend to return to nest in the area where they were raised, and may return year after year to the same tree or yard. Their selection of nest sites is flexible and includes low bushes, window sills, or even porch lights. Preferred sites are older trees with large horizontal limbs. Nest building materials are anything the bird might come upon; the only real requirement is a good source of mud to hold everything together. Nesting can even be delayed due to lack of mud. Once the nest is built, egg-laying begins. With one egg laid per day, a nest will usually contain four pastel blue eggs. Incubation lasts 11 to 14 days. Once hatched from the egg, the pink chicks are helpless, but rapidly grow their first gray feathers. They will leave the nest before they can fly, moving onto the nearby branches, often ending up hopping about on the ground. While these bobtail babies appear to be helpless, remember to leave them where they are, their parents will take care of them.

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