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American robin; a welcome spring visitor

Photo courtesy Arni Stinnissen

It is pretty common, and in no way as ostentatious as so many other male birds can be. 

It is unassuming, quiet, friendly, tolerant of most other birds, dogs and humans, and it enjoys the neighbourhood.  With its familiar song, this modest bird is one of the first migrants to brighten the remnants of winter.

In reality, it does have something it could “crow about” because in many respects it is a hero.  Like the proverbial canary in the gold mine, the American Robin has helped alter history, for the good!

During the 1950’s and 60’s a significant number of Robins were found dead, prompting researchers to investigate their deaths.  It was found that the earthworm- eating Robins had died as a result of the ingestion of a chemical found in high concentrations in the worms; we know that chemical as DDT.  This was one of the first indications that this pesticide was so lethal.

You know the rest of the story—many other birds, fish and animals succumbed to the deadly chemical before it was banned in North America in the early 1970’s.  Fortunately, sufficient numbers of each affected species survived DDT, and we are now witnessing the come-back of many species including Ospreys, Bald Eagles, Robins and others.

So we owe much to this humble little backyard bird!

American Robins are members of the Thrush family, which also includes Eastern Bluebirds, and like other members of the family they are one of the first of our backyard birds to set up house and raise a family.  In just a few days after their arrival back in our area from their migration, the nest building begins.  Some individuals will build in the same location as long as they live and then other members of the family will continue the tradition.  The bracket attaching a coach light to our house has been a nesting location for Robins since we built the house many years ago.  A pair of Robins may have three different broods each year, raising 3-5 young in each brood.  Females incubate the eggs for about 14 days.  Both parents will feed the young.

Although we tend to think that Robins primarily eat earthworms, research has proven that earthworms account for only about 40% of their diet.  Berries and other fruits as well as insects make up a greater part of their diet.  As protein is required in the development of the young birds, the protein- rich earthworms are preferred “baby food”!

Most of us were taught as youngsters that Robins locate worms by listening for them with cocked heads.  Although this may be the case in some instances, Robins use their sight to locate most worms.

It may be the most common backyard bird in our area, and therefore we tend to overlook it in search of rarer species. It is now time for us to offer the American Robin the enormous respect it deserves!

David A. Homer is a volunteer and board member of the Couchiching Conservancy.