Wild Profile: Meet the American robin

Published: December 22, 2020

A male robin sitting in a hawthorn tree in winter By Paul Roedding/Shutterstock

Spotting a robin is a sure sign of spring, right? Well, not necessarily. Plenty of robins—at least the ones south of the Canadian Shield—stay put in their cold Canadian habitats for winter. They’ll band together in small flocks, and hunker down for the chilly season. Those that do migrate head to the southern U.S., but they’re quick to return after the winter. Some robins arrive back in Canada as early as mid-March.

Robins—at least the males—are known for their bright red chests. But they’re also known for being the early birds: robins are among the first birds to start singing in the morning, well before daybreak. They have a musical, bright song: “Cheer up, cheerily!” And the early bird does get the worm—robins are big fans of earthworms, one reason that they’re attracted to lawns. This, unfortunately, has worked to their disadvantage in the past, back in the days of DDT. Earthworms are resistant to DDT and store it in their bodies; this caused massive robin die-offs in the 1950s. Happily, we now know how bad pesticides are for the environment, and today’s robin population is in good shape.

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When robins aren’t dining on worms, they mostly eat fruit: chokecherries, hawthorn, dogwood, and juniper berries. In winter, they have no choice but to eat the berries that were ignored all summer by other birds. Fruit such as crabapple, snowberry, and bittersweet gets tastier after freezing and thawing a few times. Experts think robins selectively choose berries with bugs on them—the birds get a protein boost along with the sweet, high-calorie treat.

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Ever seen a robin “anting”? Some bird species are fond of rubbing bugs—usually ants—all over their bodies. They’ll either pick up the ants in their beaks, and rub them on their feathers, or they’ll lie or crouch in a bug-heavy spot—on an anthill, for example—and allow the bugs to crawl on them. Why would a bird do this? Research suggests the formic acid in the ants’ bodies repels other parasitic bugs.

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