Schandelmeier: Spring on the wing, robins in the yard

OutdoorsMay 6, 2014 

John Schandelmeier

The appearance of robins is one of the first signs of spring. There's a story that the robin got its red breast while bringing fire to an old woman so she could cook her food. Maybe. I'd bet if that were the case, she was happy to see the robin, and the bird was overjoyed to drop the fire. However robins got their red breasts, their singing is one of the most welcoming sounds of the season.

Robins are some of the most visible early birds. Berries are their preferred food when they first arrive. They switch to eating mostly insects and worms as the season progresses. The sight of a robin pulling worms from the lawn is quintessential. Their habit of feeding on lawns around towns make them susceptible to chemical pollution, so if you like your birds, be careful of what you use on your grass. Nestlings are especially vulnerable.

Robins will typically raise several broods per summer and less than half will ever leave the nest. Predators, such as red squirrels and cats, will take eggs and young from the nest. The eggs are in the nest for a couple of weeks before they hatch, and the young remain for two more weeks until they can fly. About a quarter of fledged robins make it to the first winter.

Young robins are easy to spot; they fly only short distances and have a spotted breast. They can be confused with a close relative, the varied thrush. However, varied thrushes are more secretive and prefer darker spruce forests. The fledgling robins will follow their parents around, begging for food, for a week or so, then are off on their own. They will go to evening roosts in flocks with other juveniles and unmated adults until migration.

I found a record of a 17-year-old robin, but the average lifespan is two years. The entire population of robins (about 320 million), turns over every six years. Robins used to be hunted for food in the southern states, though I don't know how many one-ounce robin breasts it takes to make a pie. The robin is the most abundant bird in the U.S., just behind the "three and 20" red-winged blackbirds it takes to make that pie.

Rather than use the birds to eat, I think it wiser to follow them to the berry patch and use the berries where they feed. Robins tend to selectively eat berries with bugs in them. They will flock to better berry patches in the fall and early winter, sometimes getting drunk enough to tip over when eating fermented late berries. Winter feed is almost exclusively berries, and it is common to see large flocks of birds in the same patch.

Winter roosting flocks can number a quarter-million, though in Alaska I've seldom seen more than a couple dozen. Robins winter mostly in the continental U.S. Some stay on Kodiak Island and in Southeast all winter. We had a robin in our yard late one November a few years back. He looked pretty cold, and I wonder why he stayed so late. I was fishing a setnet site on the west side of Cook Inlet one season and we had a robin nesting in a shed on Sept. 21. The young were out of the nest and flying by the end of the month. They spent quite a lot of time feeding on late moss berries before they finally left.

Inuit legend has robins around during the cold months. A robin saved a hunter and his son by fanning the flames of their fire after an angry polar bear had stamped it out. There must have still been good ice.

The ice is about gone, the leaves are turning green and the early birds have eggs in the nest. By the end of the month the first brood will be on the ground. The robins will be busy and their singing will be seldom heard. Soon enough, or too soon, flocks will begin to form and their song will again be heard as they prepare to head south.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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