The robins sounded as happy as we felt on this rainy morning.  The soft, steady precipitation softened the parched ground and soon they would be able to easily grab their favorite food.  Robin’s vary their songs depending on the time of day and weather conditions.  The most distinctive and common call is described as, “cheerily, cheeriup, cherriup, cheerily, cheeriup.” This is their territorial call; at dawn it tends to be more animated and excited. The so called “peek” and “tut” calls are heard in alarm situations.(Robin songs/calls)

Since we have been keeping records of the first arrivals each spring, we have 29 years of data and Mike has plotted the robin’s arrival dates on a graph.  Even with fluctuations over time there has been a very definite trend towards earlier arrivals, by as much as two and a half

Hard to find worms under these conditions.

Hard to find worms under these conditions.

weeks.  The northern migration closely follows an average daily temperature of 37F.  Late winter storms to the south of us can hold them up for a while, but they’re on the move again as soon as the wind and snow stops.  This year with so little snow cover and the warmer temps the robins didn’t have to face the same difficulties they have in recent years.

Early arrivals

Early arrivals

The early arrivals (males) are followed by flocks of birds that come in waves.  You see them flying together over roadways and landing on lawns or golf courses where they begin their “cock-eyed” search for the elusive earthworm. They run with their body parallel to the ground in short, fast spurts and then stand upright, cocking their heads to one side and then the other.

Many of us grew up believing the birds heard the worms wiggling beneath the sod, since they seemed to turn their head to listen closely to something at their feet.  Their ears are on the sides of their heads, but so are their eyes, and this is how they pinpoint their prey.  Then with a quick stab of their yellow beak they either grab what they’re looking for or they miss, in which case, they will jab again, or just repeat the earlier, run and freeze pattern.

If they do manage to grab a worm, they lean back and gradually extract their prize.  It should be noted that it’s not just juicy worms these birds are are seeking.  They will happily consume beetles, grasshoppers, cicadas, ants, cutworms, caterpillars and butterflies.  Many of their meals are made up of insect larvae that gardeners and farmers are happy to be rid of.  Surprisingly, 57% of their diet consists of vegetable matter and over half of that is fruit.  So anyone with a crabapple tree, or grapevine, or even a mountain ash still holding hard dried fruit could find themselves hosting one or more hungry robins.

Carrying food to the  nest. Caterpillars in this case.

Carrying food to the nest. Caterpillars in this case.

A well camouflaged nest.

A well camouflaged nest.

So much about this bird is endearing to humans.  They have adapted to our cities and towns and will gladly build their quintessential nest in trees near our houses, and even on our houses if there is a ledge wide enough to hold the six and one half inch cup of mud and grasses – both coarse and soft.

Here the female lays four unmarked eggs, a beautiful shade of blue green, which has so delighted us that we now use them to describe other objects as ‘robin’s egg blue’.  Come to think of it, that’s what I chose for the walls of my office.  “Cheerily, cheeriup” is the effect of being surrounded by that color.

Recently I came across an author who lives in Atlanta and is familiar with the flocks of robins that winter in his area, but he lamented the fact that he will never get to hear their delightful song at dawn and dusk as we do; he’ll never have the pleasure of watching a pair construct a nest and see those pastel colored eggs that would fit so perfectly in an Easter basket; and he’ll never see a robin engaged in its tug of war games with the earthworms.

I have to admit that I’d never thought about it quite like that.  Every year we’re given an opportunity to witness and appreciate one of North America’s iconic birds in its full glory.  There are so many others who never will.  So tomorrow when you look at the robin in your yard you may do so with a little bit more gratitude and pleasure.

By Kate Crowley

Photos by Mike Link