Meet a Robin Bander!
Meret S. Wilson
Tomoka State Park Bird Banding Station
Ormond Beach, FL

Q. Do robins give you trouble when you try to band them?
A robin is a pretty feisty little thing. Although they don't bite, they can stab you in the hand with their beak. No bird really likes to be held for even the 2-3 minutes it takes to do all the measurements and record the data, so they tend to fight a little. But once they calm down a bit, they are really special up close. To look into the eyes of a robin is a wondrous thing. To feel that fat little tummy...well, there's nothing like it! The most difficult birds that I have had to handle are the "grosbeak" birds such as the cardinal, buntings, grosbeaks, titmice and chickadees. They all do some serious hurting, sometimes draw blood, and usually leave some sort of parting mark. To handle these birds and have the least amount of damage done to myself, I put a twig in their beak to give them something to think about while I do what I need to do. Recently a cardinal flew off with the twig still in her beak. Robins pale by comparison!

When robins are here (in Florida) in the winter, we don't get to hear the beautiful song they sing. But we do get to hear their famous "whinny" sound. I miss that sound when the robins leave for the summer. A few actually start some singing before they leave, but not the full melody you get to hear.

Q. How do you capture the robins?
American Robins (AMRO) are caught in mist nets. (AMRO is the code name banders use for robins. The code makes it easy to record data) A mist net looks very much like a hair net but it's much stronger. Robins are pretty hefty birds so the nets need to be strong to hold them. Robins are also very good at getting out of the net before we can extract them out. I banded 7 robins in one morning and 8 escaped the nets before I could get them out. It is a bander's job to be VERY careful not to injure a bird in any way. The average robin, at least while wintering in Florida, weighs between 76 and 86 grams--the equivalent of about 3 ounces. I was very surprised to find that robins feel every bit as plump in the hand as they look. Once we get them out of the net we put them in a light bag and take them to the banding table. (The robin can breathe well and move about in the bag.) The bird is weighed in the bag, removed, and then the bag is weighed again. The difference between the bird in bag and the bag alone is the weight of the bird. I then put a band on the leg, study the bird for age and sex, photograph and then release the bird. Our bands weigh next to nothing so the flight of a bird is not altered at all. All the data is recorded on a specially prepared spreadsheet and later submitted to the Bird Banding Laboratory.

Q. What are the bands like?
A. I use an aluminum band that has a unique number stamped on it. That number, once on the bird's leg, is forever that bird's number. If that robin is ever recaptured in my mist net or someone else's, the number can be traced back to the original bander. We send our banding data to the Bird Banding Laboratory in Laurel, MD. A computer base keeps the number, the bird, the date banded, by whom and where banded on file forever. It is retrievable at the request of a bander.

Color banding is usually reserved for special projects. An example would be Red Knots, an endangered shorebird studied by Brian Harrington and colleagues. The bird receives a metal band just like a robin would, but it also gets color bands that identify it as part of Brian's special study.

Q. How long have you been banding robins?
A. I personally banded my first robin in the winter of 2004-05 as part of my banding station project. I am banding on a "spoil island" formed by the by-products of dredging canals here in FL. The spoil island has a habitat very conducive to robins because of many different wild berries that grow on the island.

Q. What have you learned about your robins so far?
. Robins arrive in large flocks. They remain in smaller flocks pretty much throughout the winter while here in Florida. After a long migration, all birds arrive at their destination pretty hungry. Large flocks pretty much ate all the berries that were on trees and bushes when they first arrived. As the winter has progressed they start hunting for bugs and worms, waiting for new berries to form for their journey back north. Florida is a very good stopping place because of our mild weather and continual source of food for all birds. If I am lucky and recapture a robin next winter that I banded this winter, then I will know they like my little spoil island for spending the winter.

Q. What do banders hope to learn from banding data?
A. Questions that we like to ask and hope to answer by banding robins as well as any other birds are:

  • What are their migration routes?
  • How long do they live? How long do they stay in one area?
  • Do they return to the same area, or is it different every year?
  • Are they adapting well or poorly to the loss of habitat due to heavy development for humans?
  • What are the molt patterns (loss and regrowth of feathers called molting) of the different ages of robins?
  • Are there any robins that have abnormal feathers, like albino (white) versus normal?

We look for abnormalities on the bird such as feather color, beak or foot diseases, parasites. All these things can affect how well a bird survives these long migrations.

Q. How can you tell the age of the robins you're banding?
We age robins by the color of their feathers and beaks.

Feathers: The male is a darker orange on the breast than the female with a very black head. The female's head is more streaky. And young robins on their first journey south still are very streaked on the breast until into the spring.
Beaks: A young robin has a black beak. A full adult has a yellow beak with just a tip of black at the end of the beak.

Q. How does a robin's band size compare with other birds' bands?
A. The size band a bird will wear is determined, not by the size of the bird itself, but the size of the leg. Some very small birds have pretty thick legs. Some bigger birds have very thin legs. So, a barn Swallow (which is about the same size as a Song Sparrow) actually wears a much smaller band because its leg is smaller.

A baby robin's leg is alreaady as big as it will ever get by the time it leaves the nest. The smallest band size I use is a 0A worn by a little Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The largest I have used so far is a size 2 on a robin. So we use 0A to 0 to 1 to 1B to 1A (not a mistake) to 2, smallest to largest. Most little warblers wear a 0 and 1.

Here are some examples of birds in order of the smallest band to the largest band: Ruby-crowned Kinglet 0A, Canada Warbler 0, Barn Swallow 0, Dark-eyed Junco 0, Ovenbird (a warbler) 1, Song Sparrow 1B, Eastern Bluebird 1B, Orchard Oriole 1A, Baltimore Oriole 1A, Blue Jay 2, American Robin 2, Northern Flicker 3, A Fish Crow (found along coastlines such as Florida) 4A, and an American Crow wears a size 5.

Q. What message would you most like students to remember?
A. It is a privilege and gift to be allowed to band birds. I have learned so much about the behavior and personalities of different species. I respect their right to this earth and hope that everyone learns that we must do everything we can to protect and save them and save their habitat. I cannot imagine living in a world where the sound of a bird singing no longer existed.

Try This! Activities

National Science Education Standards

  • Scientists use different kinds of investigations depending on the questions they are trying to answer.
  • The behavior of individual organisms is influenced by internal cues (such as hunger) and by external cues (such as a change in the environment).
  • Women and men of all ages, backgrounds, and groups engage in a variety of scientific and technological work.