Over two weeks ago, my husband and I thought we heard a robin singing near our house. We never saw it, but we knew it wouldn’t be long before these iconic birds of spring returned to our yard. Northerners of all ages equate spring’s arrival with the robin’s distinctive, “cheerily, cheeriup, cherriup, cheerily, cheeriup.” Males are the first to arrive which is a calculated risk, since we often get early spring snowstorms and food supplies are limited, but these males will have the first shot at the best breeding and nesting territories.
Arriving early means the ground, even if uncovered is still probably frozen, making access to one important food supply (earth worms) impossible. However, half of their diet is made up of vegetable matter and over half of that consists of 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 “early birds”.
A Robin aiming for some dried flowering crab apples
These single, adventurous birds 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 that the birds heard the worms wiggling beneath the sod, since they seemed to turn their heads as we would, to listen closely to something at their feet. Their ears are on the sides of their heads, but so are their eyes, and it is these that they use to pinpoint their prey. Then with a quick stab of their yellow beak into the ground 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.
This Robin is pulling out a worm beneath a sunflower feeder.
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 seeking. They will quickly consume beetles, grasshoppers, cicadas, ants, cutworms, caterpillars and butterflies. Many of their meals are made up of insect larvae that gardeners and farmers are all too happy to be rid of. Since they are seeking the fat and protein in these insects, suet can also be a source of energy for them.
So much about the robin is endearing to us humans. They have adapted to our villages 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.
Into the nest, the female lays four beautiful unmarked eggs, a 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.
In reading about the robin and its behavior 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 northerners are given an opportunity to witness and appreciate one of North America’s iconic birds in its full glory. So tomorrow when you look at the robin in your yard you may do so with a little bit more gratitude and pleasure.