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American Robin

Wisconsin's Official State Bird

When the red, red robin comes bob-bob-bobin'along, there'll be no more sobbing when he starts throbbing his old sweet song."

                                                                                                       -Frank Howard 1883

Even when this old song was written to celebrate the return of the robins the bird was considered the true harbinger of spring and a welcome sight after the long, dark days of winter.

Robins do seem to lift the spirits of us winter-weary northerners with their familiar "cheer-up, cheer, cheer, cheer-up" call we hear in our backyard in spring. Only male robins sing during the breeding season to attract and court a females. They also use this call to warn other male robins to stay out of the territory they've chosen to nest in. Chances are, no matter where you live, you probably get a robin or two right outside your window singing away day after day in early spring. Since robins like to sing before sunrise and continue on all day until after sunset, their old sweet song can turn into "noise" pretty quickly, especially if you like to sleep late on occasion.

While male robins are busy singing, female robins begin the real work of selecting a site to build a nest usually in the fork in a tree but occasionally on a lamp fixture or the window sill of your house. Female robins do all the nest building as well using grass, mud, string, hair and whatever else is available. She also does all the incubating once her eggs are laid and stays on the nest night and day. In his defense, the male robin does his share of work as well having to feed both the incubating female and the young chicks. No doubt you've watched robins hopping over your lawn in search of earthworms. It was once thought that robins could hear the worms in the ground because of their habit of cocking their head toward the earth like they were listening for them. In reality, robins can actually "see" earthworms near the surface before they grab them and pull them out.

Although born featherless, blind and helpless, baby robins grow at tremendous rates increasing their weight by one thousand percent in their first ten days of life. Once feathered, robin chicks are one of nature's cutest youngsters and have voracious appetites. Robin nestlings demand to be fed every 5 to 10 minutes--a scenario familiar to any human parents that ever had teenagers in the house. Even after they have left their nest, young robins are fed for several weeks on the ground by the parents. This is time of year that well-intentioned people pick up the young robins thinking they have been abandoned or fell from their nests. Some young fledging robins do no doubt fall victim to the neighborhood cat, but most will survive and should be left alone for the parents to take care of.

Every year, robin sightings are reported in the middle of winter and many of us see this as an omen of an early spring. In reality, these are just our "winter robins" or the normal two percent of the robins that for what ever reason decided not to migrate south for the winter. Most robins do migrate to warmer climates however and don’t return to Wisconsin until March or April from their wintering grounds along the gulf coast of Texas, Florida or even as far away as Mexico.

Robins were named by early European settlers because the birds reminded them of the European robin of their homelands.

As it turns out, however, the American robin is not even related to its European counterpart and is really a member of the thrush family instead. Robins were once considered an important food source for early pioneers and Indians that used to hunt them. As late as the 1840's, market hunters were still shooting millions of robins for shipment to city marketplaces. Even John James Audubon, a noted naturalist, wrote of the delicacy of roast robin which he described as tasting like woodcock.

Today, the robin is protected by Federal and State laws and is not only the official state bird for Wisconsin but the states of Connecticut and Michigan as well. The robin has rebounded so well from the days of market hunting that it is now probably the best known and most numerous of all our native birds.

In addition to their natural enemies such as birds of prey, raccoons, and other predators, robins have created new hazards for themselves. Their habit of nipping off set plants and gorging themselves on cherries and strawberries have not exactly made them a favorite of gardeners or people who park their cars under their perching trees. Despite this, robins continue to be welcomed into our backyards each spring and will no doubt be "bob-bob-bobbin along" in search of the perfect earthworm for many years to come.

 

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Last updated: April 2014