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American Robin Migration Update: March 20, 2001

Today's Report Includes:

This Week's Migration Maps and Data

(For data, click on caption.)

First Robins

of Robins

First Robins Heard Singing

On the Move!

Photo Courtesy Anne Cook.

You can see that robins have moved and started singing a little farther north and a little farther inland, but we're still eagerly waiting for the big push. Even in places where new snow is falling, spring is in the air! Chicago got 4 inches of snow on Friday, but it was mostly melted by Saturday, and Journey North's Laura Erickson heard her first robin singing in Chicago on Sunday morning. For many of us robin watchers, the fun in migration is observing their singing and feeding behaviors to tell the migrants from the residents. You can't always be certain, but these classes are using the right clues!

Students in Tyngsborough MA saw a group of six robins together last week. Their teacher writes, "The immense snow cover is making foraging for the robins difficult and my students are keen to observe that most of the robins they see are in trees and bushes." Students in Harleysville, PA were seeing their first worms on lawns and sidewalks this week.

Even as some robins are moving north and others overwintered there, some are still lingering in the south. On March 8 we heard this from J. Flynn in Cumming, GA: "Robins have been on territory for about two weeks in the Atlanta area. There are, however, large flocks still moving through the Atlanta area. It's difficult to tell the migrants from the residents, but for the past week, I have heard robins singing from the same location every morning. I am assuming that these birds will be nesting in the area."

Fourth grader Lauren at Martic Elementary in Holtwood, PA, shares this story: "I was surprised when I went to feed my horses and saw two robins fighting over a worm!" We're surprised, too, Lauren! Robins defend a territory in spring partly so they won't have to waste energy fighting over worms. But as migrating robins continue to move in their flocks, every now and then two discover a worm at the same moment. This is what probably happened to Lauren's birds.

Thanks, everybody, for all the many other interesting robin reports sent this week! You can read the comments yourself by pressing the Owl button and selecting Robin Sightings.

Robins of a Different Feather: Challenge Question #14

Photo courtesy Steve J. Lang.

Have you ever seen a robin with white patches on its body? Or a robin with a white breast instead of red? Some robins have a white back instead of gray, and a few robins are pure white! These are albino robins, and there's an explanation for their different coloring. Pigments are the chemicals in our bodies that give us our colors. When a bird or other animal makes no pigments, the condition is called albinism, and the animal is called an albino. Some animals make normal pigments in parts of their bodies and no pigments in others. These are called partial albinos. For some reason, albinism and partial albinism have been recorded in robins more than any other wild bird species.
Journey North observers have occasionally reported albino robins. John Holbrook recently reported seeing a partial albino near Schreiber Gym on the campus of the University of Montana in Missoula on March 3. Several others saw this bird in February and March at various locations across campus.
Another observer watched two albino robin chicks last year in a nesting box in Girard, IL She writes: "Last year Mama Robin raised two sets of nestlings, in the same nest, and there was an Albino in each set. The nest was easily viewed from our breakfast room window. We were surprised to see an albino in her second set of nestlings, but we never saw either of them in our yard after they fledged."

Then come back and answer this question:

Challenge Question #14:
"What are some reasons why scientists may be more likely to find albino robins than albinos of other species?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Name That Tune!
If your robins aren't yet back and singing like crazy, it won't be long. You can find out what's going on in the robins' world if you know what they are saying and singing. Listen up! These sound recordings will help you recognize five kinds of vocalizations made by robins.

All Recordings Courtesy of Lang Elliott Nature Sound Studio


Wait for download;
96 K file.

"Peek" and "Tut" calls
Wait for download;
162 K file.


Wait for download;
138 K file.

"Seeee" call

Wait for download;
184 K file.

"Zeeup!" call
Wait for download;
158 K file.

Each sound or call has its own meaning, according to Lang Elliott, an authority on bird vocalizations:

  • The robin's "song" is a territorial declaration.
  • The "peek" and "tut" calls are heard in alarm situations.
  • The "whinny" is heard in mildly alarming situations.
  • The high-pitched "Seeeee" call is given in response to the presence of an aerial predator.
  • The "Zeeeup" call is a contact note heard mainly during migration.

Now you're ready to play Name That Tune! Here are the same five vocalizations again, in scrambled order. Write down the numbers, then listen to the recordings.






What is the name of each call, and what does each call mean? That's

Challenge Question #15:
"Can you Name That Tune, and tell what each tune means?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

News From the Northern Outposts
If you haven't yet placed your guess for the Early Bird Contest, these observers have some helpful clues:

Margot in Grande Prairie, AB, Canada writes:

"It will be interesting to see whether the robins follow the warm weather and come early this year or whether their instincts will tell them to wait. We usually see our first robins in early April so I will keep you posted."

Stan from Homer, Alaska says,

"The winter bird count in Anchorage had some Robins in December (which isn't all that unusual). I guess some Robins, like some people, enjoy a challenge and will go to great lengths to see what they can tolerate."

From Fairbanks, AK, Ken Russell writes:

"Fairbanks is finishing up the second mildest winter since weather records started here in 1904. Many years we find a robin or two during our annual Christmas Bird Count this year, Fairbanks has overwintered large flocks of Bohemian Waxwings and a number of robins."

Artwork courtesy of Trevor.

And from Sterling, AK, Sara writes:

"The robins have a long way to fly before they reach us, and it's a good thing! We've had a mild winter, but because of the freeze/thaw cycle, several inches of ice covers the ground in many areas, insulated by a foot of snow on top of it. Only robins with ice augers could dig through the layer of ice....and then because the ground is still frozen, the worms aren't near the surface. Maybe in another six or eight weeks robins can find a fresh meal. Come on spring!"

Richard reports from Nipawin, SK, Canada:

"We are looking and waiting for our first robin, which arrives at our northern town at about mid-April. We still have 2 feet of snow on the lawns, so the worms can't do any sun bathing yet! The temperatures have been (for only a few days at a time) as low as 40 degrees below Zero. (At 40 below Fahrenheit the temperature matches our Celsius -40.)"

Early Bird Contest Reminder: Challenge Question #13
Mrs. Grimm's 5th grade from Kidron, Ohio sent the first entry in our Early Bird Contest. Remember to send us YOUR entry for:

Challenge Question #13:
"When do you think the first robin will be spotted in Anchorage, Alaska (61.22N 149.90W)?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Try This! How Fast Can a Robin Run?
In the north, wintering robins spend most of their time sitting in trees, feeding, hiding out from bad weather, and resting. To get from place to place, they fly. For northerners, one of the most welcome signs of spring is to see a robin on the ground, hopping or running. Their legs sure move quickly! But just how fast can a robin run? Lauren and Jordan of Madison Elementary School wondered about that, and it set our Robin Expert to wondering, too. While she works out the answer, she decided to challenge YOU to see if you can figure it out, too. Watch your backyard robins, and set up an experiment for figuring out their speed. Then let us know how you did it!

Remember to Ask the Expert!
Send your toughest questions to our expert Laura Erickson by 5 p.m. (Eastern Time) on March 30, 2001. We'll post Laura's answers on April 13.

Harbinger of Spring? Discussion of Challenge Question #12
"Why do we use robins as a "sign of spring" when they overwinter so far north?"
Sue-Anne in North Carolina comes this explanation, which we'll all agree with: "The robins are a sign of spring because they come back from the warmer places and back up north when it gets warmer so they can find worms."
But there's more to the story. Part of it certainly is tradition. "The first robin of spring" is a popular expression and it's a popular (if erroneous) notion that all robins fly south in winter and north in spring. The reason this notion is so deeply ingrained is that even robins wintering in the north act entirely different in winter than they do in spring, when they suddenly change their diets and leave their flocks to set up territory and nest.
Even though robins overwinter in many places, and even though a few of them even sing before they reach their breeding grounds, there is something special about seeing them on their territories for the first time each year.

"There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds... There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature--the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter." -Rachel Carson

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Questions:

IMPORTANT: Answer only ONE question in each e-mail message.

1. Address an e-mail message to:
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #13 (or #14 or #15).
3. In the body of each message, answer ONE of the questions above.

Please Report the First Robin you SEE, the first robin you HEAR singing, and other interesting robin observations. Your reports will be incorporated into these Robin Migration Updates.

The Next Robin Migration Update Will be Posted on April 3, 2001.

Copyright 2001 Journey North. All Rights Reserved. Please send all questions, comments, and suggestions to our feedback form

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