American Robins in Our Sonoma County Gardens

American Robin searching for bugs at Sonoma State University ©Lisa Hug

by Lisa Hug

In many parts of the country the song of the American Robin represents the arrival of spring.  Here in Northern California, we have come to welcome the American Robin as a winter visitor, as well as a spring nester.

The robin is one of our favorite garden birds for many reasons.  For one thing, it is not shy.  It will happily hop on our lawns and search for earthworms and other invertebrates as we watch from a patio lawn chair.  And, it is big enough to see easily (unlike some small warblers or kinglets), but not so large that we think we need to hide our pets when it is around.

The robin is colorful without being gaudy.  Its crimson belly contrasts with its sepia back.  If you look at a robin carefully, you can tell a male from a female.  The male has a black head, while the female has a browner head, blending in more with the back color.  The juvenile robin is very distinctive.  Its entire body is heavily spotted.

Robins have a beautiful voice and sing an amazing song!  We usually hear it in the spring, but sometimes when large flocks are around in winter, we can detect a few breaking out into quiet songs while actively foraging for berries and grubs.  Robins are capable of singing two different tones simultaneously.  This is because their “voice box” or syrinx stretches across the two branches of the bronchus and each branch can produce tones independently of the other.  Our larynx, by contrast, is located higher up in our throat, before the bronchus divides, so we are only able to produce one tone at a time.  Robins can even sing without opening their bills at all.  Sometimes, while carrying food for their young, robins will sing with a bill full of several insects.

American Robin eating native berries in Sebastopol, CA ©Lisa Hug

We enjoy having robins around us for all of the above reasons.  The best way to attract robins to our gardens is to provide lots of berries to tide them over the cold, wet winters.  Native berries are preferable over ornamental berries, but robins do not differentiate.  Here is a list of berry shrubs recommended by the California Native Plant Society for native birds: Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana), Hollyleaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), and Brown Dogwood (Cornus glabrata).  These shrubs also provide winter shelter and nest sites in spring and summer. And, if we leave a little leaf litter under the shrubs, the robins will have a place to scratch around for their own food.

Although we have large flocks of robins in winter, by early spring many of these robins will return to areas further north; some as far away as British Colombia.  The remaining local resident robins will construct beautiful nests in trees and shrubs from grasses, twigs and mud.  The will lay three to five sky blue eggs.  Both parents will build the nest and incubate this first clutch of eggs that become nestlings.  After about 14 days, these nestlings leave the nest and hop on the ground as spotted fledglings.  The male parent feeds and supervises these youngsters.  Although the male is diligent in guarding these offspring, they are still very vulnerable to being preyed upon by house cats.  So, it is a good idea to keep your cats indoors or tightly supervised, especially during fledgling season (May through August).  As the male is watching over this first brood of youngsters, the female is busy building a new nest and incubating a second brood of eggs for the season.

I can’t imagine a world without the lilting song of the American Robin in spring.  Rachel Carson imagined just such a world in 1962 and it inspired her famous book “Silent Spring.”  This work influenced the banning of DDT, and our planet is so much better off for it.  Thank you Rachel Carson.  We are so lucky to have an abundance of America Robins to enrich our lives.

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