One morning earlier this month I saw a bird perched in a sapling at the side of the street. I pulled over to the curb and stopped to take a better look at it. I knew what it was as soon as I saw it. It was a robin. The day was cloudy and gray and the bird’s orange breast was dull. But its size and shape identified it.
The robin is one of the most common birds of North America and it’s one of the most widely distributed. In summer there are robins nesting in northern Alaska and in northeastern Canada, in Florida and south into Mexico and everywhere the habitat is suitable in between. Trees seem to be the one requirement. Not forests but open woodlands, city parks and tree shaded housing areas.
The robin is also one of the most well known birds of North America. In the book “Birds of America” it is described as “probably the best know bird in America.” Its numbers and wide distribution, its conspicuous orange breast, particularly the breast of a male, the male’s habit of perching conspicuously on the branch of a tree and singing loudly, cheerily “cheer-up, cheer-up, cheer-up,” its numbers and individuals often seen hopping across lawns as if hunting worms make it frequently seen, easily recognized and well known.
Who hasn’t watched a robin hopping across a lawn, stopping, cocking its head, then stabbing its bill into the ground and pulling up a worm. When it cocks its head it looks as if it’s listening. I’m not sure how this has been determined but a robin cocking its head is reported to be looking, not listening. With an eye on each side of its head it is believed that the bird can see better with one eye looking to the side than with both eyes looking straight ahead. What does it see? Worms are under ground most of the time. But robins eat insects too and maybe that’s what they’re looking for, and listening for worms.
The robin I saw a few days ago would once have been called a sign of spring, a harbinger of spring. A robin seen early in March is still regarded as a harbinger of spring by many people. The bird I saw may have been a spring arrival. It may also have been a bird that didn’t migrate last fall, a bird that spent the winter in our area feeding on berries on trees, and whatever insects it could find.
Robins are so widespread, so common, so numerous it’s hard to believe but at one time they may have been going the way of the passenger pigeon. In many areas they were hunted. Thousands were slaughtered. They were saved, it seems, by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act passed in 1918, and by nesting solitarily, not in huge rookeries like passenger pigeon did.
A robin’s nest must be nearly as well known as a robin. Robins have adapted to the habitats of people and often nest in trees in parks and in yards, and even on buildings, on window ledges, in gutters on houses, on roof down spouts. A nest on the ledge outside a window by my desk in my fourth grade classroom interested me but didn’t help me with my lessons.
That nest, and all robin’s nests, was made of grass with a cup-shaped lining of grass. There were four eggs, the usual number. The female did most of the sitting on the nest though the male did take turns. When young fledge they follow male and female the first few days out of the nest, then often only the male and the female lays another set of eggs and starts incubating a second brood.
I saw a robin one morning earlier this month and I thought of spring, just as I did when I was a boy.
— Neil Case may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.