There are probably few adults, and even schoolchildren, who cannot identify the American robin (Turdus migratorius). In the many illustrated children’s books that crowd my shelves, both natural history ones and fiction, the robin is easily the most frequently occurring bird. It’s the species that I feature in depth when I visit classrooms, whether they be in elementary or high school, because I am confident that students will encounter the bird frequently in their yards, in town, in parks or protected areas.
But its commonness does not make the American robin uninteresting. Like all bird species, it has a many-dimensional natural history. It is part of the thrush family, along with bluebirds and other thrushes that summer in or migrate through the Barrington area. Unlike those species, with the exception of some hearty eastern bluebirds, the robin is likely to be present locally all year long, albeit in diminished numbers in the colder months.
October and November usher in big movements of robins. On a recent walk at Galloping Hill, part of Cook County’s Spring Creek Forest Preserve, we saw easily in excess of one hundred American robins, both in flight and feeding on freshly mowed fields. Their vocalizations this time of year are nervous and a bit sharp, though occasionally one will sing an out-of-season “Cheer-up, Cheerio!”, the more familiar song of spring. While robins are best known for eating worms – hence the familiar illustrations of a robin tugging a resistant worm from a lawn – they also eat insects and, as we head into winter, berries and other fruits. Wild crabapple trees and other fruiting species are magnets for robins this time of year.
What most interests students I talk with about the American robin is its nest. It’s a fine piece of avian architecture and easily distinguished from the nests of other birds. The nest is a round bowl, always 6-8 inches in diameter, 3-6 inches in depth, constructed of dried grasses and mud (though robins’ nests increasingly include plastic strips, paper shreds, and other man-made materials). The robin is both a weaver and a potter, and it is this latter occupation that enables it to mold dry plant material with wet mud, shaping it with its body, and letting it dry into a near-perfect bowl shape. In the spring, I encourage students to be alert for robins at mud puddles to see if they can watch them scoop of beakfuls of mud and carry them to a nest site. They usually choose a spot in the fork of a tree or bush fairly high off the ground, though I’ve found robin’s nests in wreaths at the front door, in grapevines on a trellis and, more recently, in the sturdy, low branching of a wild quinine plant at Citizens for Conservation’s Grigsby Prairie. It is in that dry and sturdy bowl that the female lays 3-5 eggs of the well-known robin’s egg blue.
The large fall flights have taken many robins to points south of Barrington for the winter months. But a good number will linger, certainly through Christmas bird counts and very likely for the entire winter season. When you spot a robin, watch to see if you can determine what is doing: fluffing its feathers against frigid temperatures? Searching for insects on tree branches? Eating fruits that have persisted on shrubs or trees? The bird may be common but we can always learn more about its habits when we pay attention.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.