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Answers from the American Robin Expert
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Special thanks to ornithologist Laura Erickson for providing her time and expertise in responding to your questions.
Laura Erickson's for the Birds


Questions From: Apple Valley, Minnesota

Q: Will a pair of robins use their nest from previous year?

A: Robins don't reuse a year-old nest. First, old nests get rather crumbly
during winter, and so aren't as sturdy the second year. Second, some
parasite eggs or larvae may overwinter in a nest and attack nestlings. And
third, female robins have an overpowering impulse to build a new nest each
year (and often when they re-nest that year as well!). Sometimes if a robin
pair has had great success on a porch light or window shelf, they build a
new nest over an old one, but because of the possibility of parasites, it's
better to remove old nests at the end of each breeding season.

Q: Will a pair of robins use another robin's nest from previous year?

A: They may build their own nest on top of one, if it's in what seems like a
perfect location, but for the reasons given above, they won't use it "as is."

Q: Are there things one may do, to encourage a pair of robins nesting in your tree (such as affixing a basket to a limb), on a drainpipe, under house eave, etc.? Though I've seen, and even tried with no success, placing a "robin U-shaped nest box" under house eave, have robins ever used an open nest box? Or is the "box" a "ploy" to sell these?

About ten years ago, I hung a basket in a tree in our front yard. A robin built her nest there. She was fairly tame and I could stand under the tree and talk to her; and never did she fly away. Now retired and living in a townhome, the local robins have totally ignored my hanging a basket in our tree, nesting on a "floor joice" under neighbor's deck, often without success, as something destroys her eggs, whether a raccoon, crow, or bluejay I'm not sure; However, she's nested (unsuccessfully) again and again in same location. Last season, she did nest in a nearby tree.

A: Unlike cavity nesting birds, robins don't specifically look for a particular thing (a round, dark cavity) to identify an appropriate nest site. No man-made robin nest structure is as likely to attract robins as nest boxes in appropriate habitat are to attract other species. But Carrol Henderson's robin shelf is the best robin nest shelf I know of.

Carrol L. Henderson, is the director of the Minnesota DNR Non-game Wildlife
Program, his wonderful book, Woodworking for Wildlife, has plans for many
bird nest boxes and other nesting structures. For robins he recommends a
basic "nest shelf." Here is a description and Dr. Henderson's plans.


From: Gilford, New Hampshire

Q: I understand that Robins who do not migrate in the winter from NH eat berries from shrubs and trees during the winter. My question is: Is there enough food for these birds that do not migrate? And how can berries replace worms in regards to nutrition? Wouldn't worms have more protein? With all of the birds that stay in NH over the winter, it would seem like all of the berries, etc would be eaten up during the Fall and early Winter.

A: You're exactly right that worms have much more protein than berries. But some birds manage to achieve a "balanced diet" over an annual cycle rather than day by day. Robins require protein especially when females are producing eggs and when both sexes are molting-these activities occur only during the time of year when they're eating worms and insects. During winter when they switch to a diet of fruits, they are getting plenty of vitamins, and the carbohydrates give them plenty of energy to sustain their bodies. Winter is the time when their activity is limited and they aren't growing new plumage or producing young.

Regarding berries, there are many different species, and some have a bitter taste until winter. So some berries are avoided during late summer and fall, and these are the ones that remain for winter food. Robins also eat crab apples. There is clearly not enough fruit to sustain as many robins in winter as live in New Hampshire in summer, but there is enough fruit to maintain a small but robust winter population. And robins aren't like some birds, especially neotropical migrants, that maintain winter territories. When one food source becomes depleted in winter, a robin flock will move to another place. The only time robins are sedentary, remaining in one fixed place for weeks at a time, is during the nesting season when they are in their territories.


From: Thornville, Ohio

Q: Have you ever seen a white robin? We had one stay in our yard for several weeks in 2003. It seemed to have a mate for awhile then just by itself. I have a video tape of it and can digitize it to send in if you like. My husband was so disappointed when it didn't come back the next spring. He did enjoy telling people about it.

A: All-white robins are called albinos, and yes, I've been lucky enough to see a few. Although there are some genuinely albino robins, if they don't have pigments in their eyes, they are very vulnerable to ultralight radiation, and can quickly go blind. But partial albino robins can have all-white plumage but normally pigmented eyes. These can live reasonably long lives, and even attract mates.

The seasons of greatest mortality for robins are spring and fall, when they are migrating. So it's possible your bird died. But not all robins return to the same breeding territory year after year, especially if they didn't attract a mate or successfully raise babies, so chances are your bird simply found a new territory in 2004. I'd love to see your video!


From: Udora, Ontario

Q: For the past 3 years I have had a pair of robins nest in a alcove in my front porch. Last spring my husband was just seconds too late on a crow raiding the nest. Then for about a month later the robins went crazy, mashing into our windows all around our house from dusk to dawn. We figure it had something to do with not having chicks to raise. Once they laid another nest of eggs that all stopped. They were successful with the second brood. Is this natural, were they blaming us?

A: The robins were NOT blaming you! But birds do become agitated when they lose their eggs or chicks, and robins are extraordinarily vigilant about intruders on their territory. What your robins were doing was attacking their reflections in the window, trying to drive what looked (to them) like intruding robins out of their territories. You're right that as soon as they were taking care of that second brood of eggs, they became more focused on "childcare" than on territory.


From: Oregon, Wisconsin

Q: How can we help robins from starving when they first come back and there is still snow on the ground? What do they eat?

A: Robins follow the 37-degree isotherm, and so they have to be pretty sturdy, since in a great many places, there are ice storms and blizzards associated with early spring. Robins are large enough, and can have enough body fat in late winter, to easily survive a few days of very bad weather. When they first return, as the ground is just barely starting to thaw and may still be snow-covered, they head for old crabapples and any berries still remaining.

Robins are not usually feeder birds, and most of them don't have a clue that anyone would offer food in a bird feeder. But some do figure it out. I get robins at my feeders when I offer mealworms (I just put the mealworms in a bowl in my window feeder). They also sometimes figure out that feeders can have fruits. They particularly like grapes, raisins, strawberries and blueberries. If you buy frozen berries, don't heat them in the microwave to
thaw them-simply set out the frozen fruits so they can thaw slowly (or stay
frozen-if it's that cold outside, robins expect their food to be frozen!) and they won't lose all their juices. Don't feel bad if you can't get "your" robins to notice the feeders-they really do have enough fat to survive, and if they get hungry in a cold spell, they head back south again for a few days.

Q: Why do robins come back so early before the frost is out of the ground? I saw one today (March 11, 2005) on my deck by the birdfeeder in Wisconsin. It hasn't even warmed up in Southern Illinois.

A: Believe it or not, robins over-wintered where I live in northern Minnesota! Your robin may be one that spent the winter somewhere in Wisconsin, or may be an early migrant. This time of year, robins are very restless, and as long as they have enough body fat, move north as the average temperature reaches about 37 degrees. Ones that wintered in the north are actually north of the 37-degree isotherm to start with, but as they deplete the fruit in one area they move to another. We think of robins as spring and summer birds, but they are surprisingly hardy.


From: Rolling Meadows, Illinois
Rolling Meadows High Schoo
l

Q: Why do Robins migrate?

A: Robins migrate because the ground freezes, locking them out from their favorite food, earthworms, and because winter weather makes it impossible to find juicy caterpillars and other insect food. Robins switch their diet to fruit in winter, but there is not enough fruit in the north to feed all the robins that live in the north all summer. That's why most robins move
south.

 

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