American Robins of Summer: Their Hidden Lives and Loves, and Letting Go

Camille, an American robin
American robins (Turdus migratorius) are familiar birds, found nearly everywhere—in urban and suburban parks and gardens, on farmland, and in wilder forests and even subalpine meadows. We enjoy hearing their cheery songs and watching them search for squirmy bits of food, but let’s face it: They’re taken for granted. Considering how closely robins live among us, it’s amazing how little we know about them. To truly appreciate and respect a bird or anyone else, we need to discover how they live and love. Here’s a glimpse into a portion of the life of a charming bird and several of her babies, whom she raised almost directly under my gaze. They taught me how little I knew.


As I puttered around my garden on the afternoon of July 4th,
I savored the quiet time and hoped for a mildly noisy evening for the sake of wild birds and other animals who intensely fear fireworks and yearn for peace and quiet. As I approached my front door, the sound of wings fluttering in a nearby Camellia shrub stole my attention and I glimpsed someone quickly wing her way into a small tree nearby. Whom had I disturbed? A quick scan revealed none other than a shy American robin, perched on a branch, patiently waiting for me to leave. But curiosity got the best of me, so I backed up a few steps and hid motionless behind a red-flowering currant shrub to learn what this beautiful bird was up to. A few minutes later she returned to the Camellia and this time I could see that her bill was full of grass. Grass? That’s right: Nesting material! As my eyes focused, I realized that she was perched on the edge of a nest, to which she was adding the finishing touches.

Like a statue I stood for a few moments longer as she arranged the bits of grass. As soon as she flew off I ran inside to tell my husband, Rick, the exciting news: “A robin’s building her nest right under our bedroom window!” We raced upstairs to the bay window that overlooks our front yard, and there — only 5 or 6 feet from the window and about 10 feet aboveground — it was: A perfectly round little nursery, created with mud and grasses and such. We were astonished, elated, and honored that this nest had fallen into our proverbial laps, providing us with a rare opportunity to peek into the life of an enchanting bird. She had obviously been working on her nest for quite a few days, but we hadn’t even noticed. And that’s the way she wanted it.

Nest construction
Though I’ve discovered quite a bit about the black-capped chickadees and Anna’s hummingbirds who raise their young in our yard nearly every year, I knew little about robin family planning. To learn about their breeding habits I turned to books and websites and found that American robins are very busy birds. As the weather warms in springtime, winter flocks break up and males begin to claim and defend territories of about a half to a full acre, typically in the same general area as the previous year. Males sing emphatically and almost continuously to exclude others; they also sing to attract their mate, and once they do, a short courtship ensues. Both male and female choose a nest site and typically, couples have—or try to have—2 or 3 broods during their breeding period, and I suspect that this female was on attempt Number Three since it was already July. I’d seen a robin collecting nesting material in our back yard in April, so two previous nests were certainly possible. (Sadly, many nests just don’t work out since cup-shaped nests are not immune to predation or parasitism; I’ve watched robin nests be permanently abandoned after crows repeatedly harassed the nest builder; once I found a dead mangled baby in our bird bath after a crow had flown off.)   

According to several accounts I read, female robins may begin a new nest soon after the previous brood has fledged. When this happens, the male takes on their care while she quickly finds a new nest site and constructs it by herself (robins don’t reuse nests but may reuse materials or build a new nest atop an old one). After reading about Dad’s duties, I went to our back yard, camera in hand. Sure enough, there was Big Daddy in the bird bath, teaching Junior how to take a proper bath. Afterwards, they both left, but Junior returned ten minutes later, eager to practice this new (and no doubt thrilling) activity on his own. (Learn how to tell male, female and juvenile robins apart here.)

Big Daddy & Junior

Reportedly, robins build their strong, insulated nests from the inside out, pressing dead grasses, stems, and twigs into a cup shape using their wing’s wrist. Attached securely to a branch with spider silk, the nest is then strengthened by layering soft mud with bill and feet (which explains the mud I’d noticed in the bird bath!), more grass, more mud, and so on, and finally lined with fine, dry grass to protect the eggs and insulate them. For two days we observed her from the closed window as she brought more grass and pressed her breast onto the inner sides of the nest to smooth and contour it. Upon completion it measured about 6.5 inches wide by 4 inches deep, with a 4.5-inch inner diameter. During the days of July 6 and 7 she sat on her nest for short periods and the suspense (as to when she’d lay her first egg) was killing us. Finally, mid-morning on July 8 I noticed the first egg, and it was a most brilliant greenish-blue—the quintessential “robin’s egg blue.”

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Why blue?
There have been many theories. According to Tim Birkhead, author of The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg (Bloomsbury, 2016), Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) surmised that robins’ blue-green eggs offer protection from predators due to cryptic coloring: When seen from below, through their “wicker nests,” the eggs blend into the blue sky. “This is wrong at several levels, including the fact that … [their] nests are lined with mud and impossible to see through; and that he assumed that the main predators would see the nest from below,” writes Birkhead. Three later explanations—camouflage and conspicuousness, avoidance of brood parasites, and individual recognition—have been tossed around, but a more recent one, thanks to technological advances in measuring color, makes the most sense to me: According to a study published in 2016 in The American Naturalist, birds like robins who typically nest in somewhat open nests within forests or other leafy places (where light levels are moderate) evolved towards having darker eggshells because the pigment protects the egg’s interior from dangerous UV radiation, but also allows the eggs to absorb more light, causing them to heat up more quickly, leading to faster embryonic development. Shorter incubation periods mean less risk of egg predation, but will likely be disastrous if climate change, which leads to more hot days during birds’ breeding periods, is allowed to continue. The blue-green color itself comes from biliverdin, a pigment that’s applied in the shell gland (aka uterus) just before delivery.

My biologist mind was spinning with more questions that weren’t answered in Ornithology 101, such as: How is eggshell formed? What is the real purpose of turning the eggs? How do the chicks breathe? I’ll get to those, but also about this time I decided Mama robin should have a name. “Robbie” was just too banal for such a beautifully plumed bird whose dark eyes suggest a wonderful gentleness. I settled on “Camille” (French pronunciation: kah-MEE), after the Camellia shrub that cradled the nest, but also because the name means pure and perfect.

Making eggs
I’ve always been fascinated by the self-contained life support systems called eggs and got to wondering about the shells. I knew that creating eggs is immensely draining on a female’s energy reserves and that extra nutrients are essential. I also knew that eggshells were made of calcium carbonate, but didn’t know that calcium is the most difficult mineral for many birds to obtain and that most female birds (other than birds such as raptors who eat bone by consuming whole prey) need to actively seek extra calcium.

No one knows exactly how birds know which foods are high in calcium, but it is essential that they ingest it during the evening hours prior to laying an egg so that a chalky solution of calcium carbonate can be applied to the membrane that envelops the embryo soon after it reaches the uterus. Birkhead notes that “most small birds seem to rely on calcium-rich snail shells that they find on the ground.” Robins may also eat arthropods like millipedes (often found in decaying leaves and other dead plant matter) that have a calcium-rich exoskeleton. Whether they use shells or skeletons, this is yet another reason to leave priceless natural materials on the soil and to not use any poisons. Without adequate calcium, birds may produce fragile, thin, or otherwise defective shells—with disastrous results—or fail to produce eggs at all. In case you’re wondering, avian eggshells are hard when they are laid, not soft.

Incubation
American robins typically lay three to five eggs; most common is four. Incubation, which is done by moms since male robins don’t have a brood patch, lasts for 12-14 days. The day after Camille’s first egg was laid, another followed, but incubation was sporadic those first two days. Full incubation usually doesn’t begin until the last or second-to-last egg is laid so that all will hatch on the same day or thereabouts. With the addition of the third egg, laid on July 10, she began devoting nearly all of her time to incubation, quietly and secretively leaving only to grab something to eat and stretch her wings. She was rarely off the nest for more than 30 minutes, much less during slightly chilly mornings. We wondered whether she’d produce a fourth egg, but July 11 brought no more, so three it would be. On that day I heard a robin’s call outside the window around 7:20 AM and saw Camille return to the nest around 8:00. About an hour later I noticed what I believe was her mate on our neighbor’s rooftop while she was off foraging. I imagine her call had something to do with this, but I don’t know whether it occurred on a regular basis.

Whenever she returned after foraging I noticed that she would do a little dance in the nest. Contrary to sources that state that robins turn their eggs with their bills while standing on the edge of the nest, Camille always used her feet when we watched her. Turning eggs is essential for successful hatching, but is reportedly critical only during the first few days of incubation. Turning encourages the flow of nutrients and such within the egg, promotes the development of an embryo’s external blood vessels, and ensures that the embryo is positioned correctly with respect to the yolk and albumen (so that it can make full use of the albumen). Moms also position eggs so that no obstruction will prevent hatching.

Escaping the shell
According to Birkhead, hatching is complicated: Since they can no longer depend on the oxygen that comes through tiny eggshell pores and into blood vessels that line the inner shell, embryos need to do several things before the main event: Start shutting off that blood supply at their umbilicus and take it into their body; draw what’s left of the yolk into their abdomen (to use as food for the first few hours after hatching); and puncture the membrane of the “air cell” that’s inside the egg at the blunt end. As soon as they puncture it, they can use their lungs—for the first time—to obtain the oxygen and energy needed to come into the world.

These tiny creatures, imprisoned in shells, are impossibly weak and equipped with only a little egg-tooth at the tip of their bill—powered by a feeble neck muscle—to crack the shell. To learn how they actually break out, I consulted my dust-covered college ornithology textbook by ornithologist Sewall Pettingill, who described how an embryo “scrapes and presses the egg-tooth against the inside of the already weakened shell until a crack results,” a process known as pipping. Zooming in on photographs I took revealed that there were tiny cracks in the eggs many hours before hatching, so it isn’t a quick, simple operation. “From a star-shaped crack, a fissure develops, usually around the larger end [of the egg]. Muscular action of the embryo, chiefly in the legs and neck, forces the shell apart at the circular fissure,” Pettingill explained.

Day 0 First hatchling

On the 12th day of incubation (July 22), all three chicks broke free of their shells. The first one hatched very early (perhaps well before dawn; we first noticed him/her at 7 AM, already gaping for food). The second hatched sometime between 10:30 and 11:30 AM, and the third at twilight, probably between 8:40 and 8:50 PM (the eggshell was still in the nest at 8:55, and because the parents remove (or eat) broken shells quickly because they’re sharp, it must have happened just minutes earlier).

As you can see in the photos, the chicks began life utterly helpless: Blind, nearly naked, and so weak they can barely hold their heads up. Needless to say, we were completely in awe, fascinated at their wondrous and fragile beginnings. In this photo you can see the egg-tooth at the end of one’s bill on Day 1 (the day after hatching).

Day 1

Growing up
Camille, like all bird moms, was completely devoted and attentive to her young. When she wasn’t foraging for food or feeding them she would brood them (cover them with her body); this went on until nearly the end of the the nesting period when the nestlings’ bodies filled up the nest and daytime temperatures were high. During their first few days in particular, she showed great concern. Her comings and goings were secretive, as they had been during incubation—she’d fly or hop short distances, rather than flying quickly and directly to and from the nest.

Several sources state that both parents feed the young, but we never saw anyone but Camille feeding her babies. Perhaps Big Daddy had his wings full with the previous fledglings or they had an agreement, or it’s possible he helped out only at dawn while we were still asleep (although I have doubts about the latter). Rick did notice him perched atop our roof one afternoon, so he may have assisted her by keeping an eye on the nestlings at times. But we never saw him after that, so I hope it was just their way of doing things and not that something terrible happened to him [Addendum 2018: Big Daddy is alive and well!]. His absence was unfortunate, as you will read below. Besides feeding, Camille had to do most of the nest guarding and keep herself in good condition. 

Nest activity was a whirlwind of frequent feeding, pooping, and incredibly fast growth. Aging the nestlings is done simply by day number, with hatching day designated as Day 0, the first full day as Day 1, and so forth. On Day 1 we filmed Camille bringing a huge earthworm to the nest, big enough to strangle a chick. When she couldn’t get it in their gaping mouths, everyone gave up and fell asleep with the mangled worm draped over and around them; then she got on top. Adult robins may eat beetles, caterpillars, spiders and snails (as well as fruit such as serviceberries when insects and other arthropods are scarce), but Camille fed her babies mostly worms early on, although I saw her actually shove a moth down a tiny throat on the first day as well. That was my cue to I water the garden more often than usual to try to make worms more available, especially since the weather was warm and dry, which causes worms to go deeper into the soil. I also bought a cup of meal worms and placed some near the nest in the mornings. Later in the nesting period I saw her feeding them the fruit of English laurel (an invasive species), the product of an untrimmed neighbor’s hedge, as well as blueberries from our yard. Robins are important seed dispersers and large seeds are regurgitated. I estimate that at least 30 trips were made to the nest each day for feedings.

We can’t talk about feedings without mentioning what comes afterwards. Nestlings of passerines (and some other kinds of birds) bag up their excrement into a neat little receptacle called a fecal sac, which is essentially a white mucous membrane filled with poop. The young defecate at the edge of the nest and parents dutifully either carry them away or eat them to keep the nest clean and tidy. Some accounts say that robins will eat the sacs when the nestling are young, as they contain much undigested food, but then carry them away toward the end of the nesting period when the birds (and sacs) are much bigger. Not so with Camille—she ate them until the very end, even when the globs became quite large. I imagine she was hungry! 

On Day 3 I could clearly hear tiny vocalizations from the babies when Mom approached or perched on the nest. Also, dark pterylae (feather tracks from which their contour feathers arise) were now visible.

Day 3

And then there were two
Day 4 was uneventful, and except for some hot afternoon sun hitting the nest that caused heat stress, everything seemed fine. One of the young was a little bigger and stronger looking than the other two; no doubt the first to hatch. At the end of Day 4, Rick noticed all three gaping as usual when Camille landed on the nest. But the next morning, after watching the nest for some time, I realized that I could only see two babies. After Camille left to forage, I opened the window and took photos to see if I could detect the third chick in an enlargement. After downloading them, I was devastated: One of the babies must have died during the night and apparently was carried off by Camille (no one was found beneath the nest on the ground). Or, an early bird (American crow) might have carried the little bird away (I’d found a dead baby robin in our bird bath the previous year, left by a crow).

Day 5

Nestling mortality is usually due either to predation or starvation, and it could have been a predator attack, although I have doubts, for several reasons: More than one nestling would likely be missing; being a light sleeper I would have heard something outside the window; no predators were ever seen near the nest; and there would probably be some damage to the nest (in the case of a large predator like a raccoon). Of course it’s impossible to know for sure, and it could have been a crow but it’s also possible that the youngest, who may have been nearly a day younger than the first to hatch, starved. Although they all looked close in size, the smallest one might not have been able to compete for food, especially with the afternoon heat that may have weakened her further. One study showed that most starvation occurred late in the season due to reduced availability of earthworms. Plus, since only Camille—not her mate—was feeding them, there may have been a food shortage. If only I had known it was that dire, I would have put out more meal worms! Reportedly, only about 25 percent of nests are “successful,” defined as producing just one baby robin, so they’ve got it rough. No wonder they need to produce more than one brood per year and no wonder everything seems to be conducted in such a rush! Nest-bound birds are in real and constant danger; an entire brood could be lost to a bad storm or predator. 

Brother and sister?
Their rate of growth was incredibly rapid and daily changes were obvious, especially when comparing photographs. After the fifth day we could see their individuality. One was larger and appeared about a day ahead of the other. His eyes opened a day sooner as you can see in the photo below (on Day 5), his feathers grew in sooner, and he basically appeared stronger. The other was a bit scrawny-looking and we wondered about gender differences, even at this young age.

Day 6_

Day 6

 

Day 9

Day 9

 

As they matured, I began to think the larger one might be male, especially when feathers on his head appeared darker. I named him “Big Boy” and the smaller one “Lilla” (Swedish for little). Cornell Lab of Ornithology mentions that male juveniles “may have fewer pale shafts on the crown, larger and blacker spots on the breast, and upperparts may average darker than in females.” Later it appeared that my guess was correct.

The only worry now was the heat: During their first week, temperatures were in the mid-80s and on Day 2 they were showing heat stress by doing an avian version of panting called gular fluttering, in which birds rapidly flap membranes in their throats to increase evaporation. During the second week, temperatures soared into the low 100s and I read that young birds are more likely to die from excessive heat than cold. Rick and I put our heads together and created a shade barrier that we hoped would help during the hottest part of the afternoon. Up went part of an old bedsheet that we managed to hook on nearby branches as high as we could. While it didn’t create a lot of shade, it did supply some after 5 PM when the sun would hit the nest. I hate to think what would have happened had the heat come during incubation since eggs rarely hatch at air temperatures over 104ºF.

Gular fluttering on Day 11.

Gular fluttering on Day 11.

 

Day 12

A hot Day 12.


The empty nest
As I mentioned, the period between hatching and fledging happens in such a frantic rush, as if it’s a matter of life and death. And so it is: A nest is a dangerous place for young robins with high nest predation and mortality, so they need to leave the nest at a time when they are not the least bit prepared for life on their own, typically only 14 to 16 days after hatching. On August 4 (Day 13), Big Boy ventured to the edge of the nest and sat there, no doubt instinctively knowing that this would be one of the most perilous times of his life. I saw him perch twice, then go back to his sister, who wasn’t too keen on taking on the world just yet. The next day, in the middle of the afternoon following a fruity snack provided by Mom, I quietly watched from the ground as Big Boy again sat on the nest’s edge. Then, all of a sudden, he bravely took to his wings for the very first time. It was a short, shaky downward flight that took him into our neighbor’s yard. And then, due to hedges and fencing, I could no longer see him.

Big Boy, an hour before he left the nest.

I knew Camille would go after him to ensure his safety and to reassure him during what must be a terrifying time, and I assumed she’d return to Lilla in a fairly short time. I was curious how long she would spend with Big Boy out on his own, so Rick and I took turns watching the nest. When two hours had rolled by and Lilla began calling out for her mother, I began to worry. Fledglings need their parents to teach them all about dangers and how to stay out of harm’s way and to feed them for the first few days, and then to teach them how to forage for themselves. A baby robin without a parent stands little chance of surviving.

Finally, after a long three and a half hours, Camille returned to the nest to feed Lilla. What a relief to me, but also to Lilla who had never been separated from Camille for so long. We now wondered how long Lilla would stay in the nest by herself.

Lilla, alone in the nest

A heat-stressed Lilla, alone in the nest.

Early the next morning, Day 15, I was lying in bed weighed down by a sleepy cat. I heard robin voices outside the window and wondered what all the commotion was about, but didn’t want to mess with the sleeping beauty. Then, silence. When I finally managed to get to the window, she was gone. Little Lilla was now a fledgling, and the nest was silent and empty.

Though Camille was probably relieved to have her offspring finally fledge, I was a mess. Watching these selfless birds had filled me with a sense of calm and made me temporarily forget the troubles of the world. The bond I built with them, though totally one-sided, was real and deep (and we didn’t even get to say goodbye!). Viewing the nest now was just an excuse to tear up, and it didn’t help that they were now out of sight, in the neighbor’s “pesticide marinaded yard,” as Rick describes it. But two mornings later, when I saw Big Boy perched inside our leafy fig tree, wisely trying to remain unseen, pragmatism reminded me that fledglings must turn into successful adult birds — they need to hone their foraging techniques, learn their species’ song, form social relationships, and recognize good breeding habitat when they see it — so that they, too, can bring baby robins into the world. To help out, plates of wormy compost went into the back yard in the hopes of luring them away from pesticides.

Big Boy, Day 16

Big Boy, Day 16

 

Lilla on Day 19

Lilla, Day 19

 

Camille collects blueberry treats (Day 20).

Camille collects blueberry treats (Day 20).

 

The fledging period is complex and fascinating and I wish I could have witnessed more of it, but I caught glimpses of both Lilla and Big Boy a few more times as Camille fed them berries or worms. The last time I saw them with Camille was exactly three weeks after leaving the nest and they appeared to be well on their way to adulthood.

It’s now early September, four and a half weeks post fledging, and there are no signs of the juveniles, who are likely nearby but no longer dependent on their parents. They will wear their freckled juvenile plumage until autumn. Small groups of adults frequent our leaf litter now and then to forage together, so evidently breeding territories are now obsolete. This morning I photographed a robin who had the exact same eye ring as Camille, looking for blueberries.

Researchers say that only a quarter of young robins make it through their first year. I hope Big Boy and Lilla beat the odds.

So now you know, too. 

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Want to help American robins?

♦ Avoid using all pesticides.
♦ Provide open ground-foraging habitat that can accumulate leaf litter beneath trees.
♦ Grow fruit-bearing native trees and shrubs, such as madrone, serviceberry, huckleberry, and thimbleberry (in the Pacific Northwest), which are especially important for inexperienced juveniles.
♦ Allow muddy areas to remain for mud collecting and snails for females needing calcium.
♦ Install a bird bath in a quiet spot where it can easily be maintained and observed.
♦ Avoid pruning trees and shrubs in the spring and early summer when birds are building nests.
♦ Keep kitty indoors and discourage others from visiting your property.
♦ Prevent robins from being injured or killed by window collisions.

 


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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45 thoughts on American Robins of Summer: Their Hidden Lives and Loves, and Letting Go

  1. This is a great article. We have an arborvitae on our deck that has had a successful brood every year, for at least 7 years, even when we tried to wrap it in garden mesh to keep the Robin’s out. We did this because the tree is right by our outdoor table, and we cant sit at the table for the month or so the Robin’s are in the nest. They still found a way in. I dont think these are the same robins year after year, but maybe the offspring who return to the territory. My one observation from last night is, as I was watching a current nest on an open branch, the two parents were standing on top of their nest, with their two 8day old babies beneath them, and the two parents were nuzzling each other! I was in awe seeing this display of affection, gently rubbing their heads together, which went on for 10-15 seconds. Was what I saw a display of affection or something else?

    Reply
    1. Interesting … I suppose it could have been affection, but I also think it may have been a form of preening, or perhaps bill wiping, but I’m not sure. I’d suggest asking your local Audubon Society chapter or a state university with an ornithology department. Also, I’d suggest simply avoiding the plant for a month, since plastic mesh or netting can cause much more harm than good … please see more info here:

      Reply
  2. I am staying in a house in upstate New York and there are four old nests under the eaves of the covered porch. A robin has nested in one of these nests and I see 3 babies heads popping up. She feeds them and the male also comes by. Now I see either her/him/them or another robin is sitting on the nest next to that one, and today suddenly also on the third one! I do not know if they are different birds or the same! Today one female came and sat on the rail near the eaves for 20 minutes. Just looking. They always sit on the rail for about 1 minute before flying into the nest. I am new to birds: is all this normal? can someone explain it to me? no trees nearby so where will the babies fly to? thank you! fascinating

    Reply
    1. Vivian, I’m so sorry for the delay in responding to your comment! In answer to your questions: What you are seeing are the same birds, since the majority of birds (including American robin) are very territorial during breeding season. They must be enjoying the array of seats! Also, as I mentioned in my post, it’s usual for them to fly to a perch rather than flying directly to and from the nest to keep the nest location secret and help avoid predation. The babies will first fly to the ground, where their parents will join them and feed and protect them. It will be two or possibly three days later when they will take to nearby trees and shrubs.

      Reply
  3. I live in Southern Wisconsin and yesterday I happened to look out the window and I seen a crow next to a robins nest with a blue egg in it’s beak. I ran outside to scare it off. I decided to stick around to make sure the crow didn’t return. While I sat there the robins whose nest was just robbed went back the nesting area of the tree. One robin sat above the nest on a branch and the other went into the nest. Then the robin that had been in the nest flew off with a blue egg in its beak. I obviously was quite surprised. The robin that flew off with the egg came back after about two minutes and went back into the nest and grabbed another egg and made the same trip away from the nest. The other robin that had been keeping watch then flew off and that was it. They have not been back to the nest since. I have scoured the internet, and I have found no evidence to back up this being a normal robin behavior. Could you help me to explain what I witnessed. I’m kinda baffled.

    Reply
    1. Wow, that sounds very odd. I wouldn’t think that a robin’s bill would be large enough to be able to transport an egg that’s 0.8 inches wide. Is it possible that you saw them carrying off pieces of shell? It is normal for them to remove broken shell from their nests and I think that’s probably what you saw. If not, you might contact the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and/or the Audubon Society. Assuming you don’t have a photo of it, you could at least get an ornithologist’s take on it.

      Reply
  4. We had a nest with 3 larger birds and a smaller one.They built a nest on our back deck under cover. We fell in love. They were used to us but one day they were all standing on the edge of the nest and we startled them and they all flew off. We caught them all and put them back on the porch. Mom and Dad were screaming so badly that a crow appeared. I got rid of him. The younger robin stayed on porch. After talking to a wildlife rescue I was told to put the smaller one with the others who were in the neighbor’s yard. I saw the mother feed the smaller on but since then the parents seem not to know where they are. I have been crying and praying. It’s been raining heavily for two days. I think they are feeding at least one, but I don’t think the smaller one survived. I see the parents and hear one calling to one but see no sign of them.

    Reply
    1. As I wrote, the day before he fledged, Big Boy was on the edge of the nest. So if they were standing on the edge of the nest, they were old enough and ready to fledge; gathering them up was unnecessary and caused stress to the parents, as you noted. We should intervene as little as possible and only if there are dire circumstances. Chances are, the parents know where they are and are feeding them. Since they aren’t in your yard, they’ll be difficult to see. Of course, some may not make it … as you read, “Researchers say that only a quarter of young robins make it through their first year.” But hopefully they’re fine.

      Reply
      1. I loved your robins story and photos/video. Ironically, I could have written the same article since I just had the exact experience about 6 feet from my bedroom window in a dogwood tree where the male and female were seen finishing their nest together. The hatchlings are now about 8 days old …..I think there are 3…very hard to see down into the nest since the branch is a couple of feet higher than my window. I feel like they are my grandchildren…..watching the nest as often as possible every day. Mom robin comes and goes regularly in search of food…..mostly worms. I pray they all make it to adulthood as in the past couple of years I have found a few newly hatched robins dead on the ground in my yard.

        Reply
        1. How wonderful that you can witness it … but I hope it’s not too hot where you live. I wish them (and you) all the best!

          Reply
  5. Really nice article. Thank you for all the research! I’m currently watching a next of four babies, and I have grown attached. They have begun to flap there wings and get worried they are going to push a brother or sister out of the nest by accident. And Mom and Dad chased off blue jays earlier today.

    Reply
  6. Hi Eileen, this article is great. My wife and I have had a pair of robins coming to our backyard for the past three years. We’ve learned so much about their neat little quirks and behaviors. We have seen them raise a whole bunch of little robins over that time and it’s been one of the best experiences we’ve had. It’s always so much joy when the pair returns to our yard after migration, year after year.
    This year has been really hard on them though. They were in the middle of raising their second brood about a month or so ago and their nest was raided by a Cooper’s hawk. I saw the hawk fly away with two of the babies and couldn’t do anything about it. A whole group of neighborhood birds chased the hawk including, Rudy the male robin. It was heartbreaking to see. Jewel, the female was flying around looking for the babies for hours until she gave up.
    Shortly after that, Jewel tried to construct a new nest and injured herself pretty bad. She could only stand on one foot and had trouble getting around. It was really tough to watch. She was eating though and trying to bathe. She’s real good bather, just loves getting in the water. We got her lots of mealworms and berries. After about two weeks of checking on her and keeping her fed and watered, she made a full recovery. Rudy stuck around the whole time as he has been her mate for at least three years that we know of. After she recovered, she began to construct a new nest and she currently is sitting on eggs. It’s a little late in the season but I guess she knows what she’s doing.
    Yesterday, Rudy didn’t show up for feeding time. My wife and I are very worried. He didn’t show up this morning either. We fear the worst has happened. Jewel still shows up but I think she’s been searching for Rudy. I’m wondering if there’s still hope that he will return. Do you know why a male robin would go off while his mate is sitting on eggs? I was hoping you would have any insights on this. We hope this isn’t the end of our little robin pair.

    Reply
    1. Greg, I’m very sorry to hear about Rudy. I doubt he would leave so soon on his own especially if there is a new nest; I imagine he could have been preyed upon (by a cat?) or hit someone’s window, which kill more birds than cats — as much as a billion birds each year in North America (see my post, “Killer Windows”). Great news about Mom recovering, though, and I hope she will be able to raise this new brood (with your expert assistance!).

      It’s always so sad when nestlings are preyed upon, and I know firsthand how moms react, but we have to remember that hawks are integral parts of ecosystems and they have to feed their babies, too. Your robins sound like they’ve able to be be much more productive than the robins in our area: For the second year in a row they have been unable to successfully raise any young due to American crows (who aren’t native here). American robins are in decline, like so many other species once “common”. Also, just fyi, unless you live in the far north, American Robins actually spend the whole winter in their breeding range; because they spend more time in flocks, roosting in trees and much less time in your yard, you’re much less likely to see them. Thanks for reaching out.

      Reply
      1. Rudy came back! We don’t know where he went but he is back and we are relieved! Rudy and Jewel were together gathering up food for the new nestlings that must have hatched yesterday or today.
        Thanks so much for your reply and for your nice blog. Best wishes to you!

        Reply
  7. While building a raised deck, reaching to our second floor, and even before nailing the floor, we saw a robing building a nest under the deck.
    This was a few weeks ago.
    We stop working and using the deck in any way, not to disturb the birds.
    We went to the nesting area only three times, uncover a bit the nest, just enough to take some pictures of the four eggs at the beginning and and the four little babies after hatching.
    Today morning we heard some noise, went outside, and saw a chipmunk running from the nesting area, and both mother and father robin fighting him.
    We also saw two of the robin babies were on the ground.
    At that time we thought the two babies left the nest, it was almost the time, they were sixteen days old, so we thought the birds were just protecting their babies.
    So we left them alone and just watched form far, afraid not to do any more harm.
    Unfortunately, only later on, when we saw no more movement on the nest, we went there and discovered the chipmunk, in fact, killed one of the babies, therefore the others maybe just felt from the nest, scared by the intruder, and not in fact fledgling.
    We looked around unsuccessfully trying to locate the other three babies.
    We are very, very sad for this unfortunate robin family and feel bad our balcony was not a safe location for them.
    We were not aware of the fact chipmunks are a carnivore, maybe we should have done something to protect the nest since we knew we have few chipmunks running on our front and backyard.
    We don’t know exactly what can be done, definitely not to harm them and indirectly their babies.
    Would be any possible way to figure out if the baby robins are OK?
    What we should be looking for?
    Do you think is there any chance for this robin family to nest on our balcony again in a few days?
    Do we need to remove the existing nest to allow them to build a new one?
    Even if this will delay the finalization of our home improvement project, we will love to have the birds nesting again on our balcony and watching them during this time.

    Reply
    1. I’m so sorry to hear about these robins — they have such a hard time. Thank you for giving them the chance that you did. In answer to your questions/concerns, there really wasn’t anything you could do to protect the nest and they will not build a nest in that immediate vicinity again this year. It’s also getting a bit late in the year to begin a new nest, but they could and it’s possible that Mom is beginning to do that right now. Chances are, the parents were able to lure the 3 babies away from the nest site and are taking care of them elsewhere within their territory (I’m not sure how large robins’ territories are, but I would guess that they are at least an acre (or two?) in size). Also, chipmunks are omnivores, not carnivores; due to their small size they were likely after bird eggs (when food is scarce, the normally vegetarian chipmunk diet is flexible; they will scavenge for anything edible, including carrion or very small birds and eggs). If you feed other birds via seed feeders I highly recommend taking them in during nesting season (and just feeding during winter), and growing native plants (which provide more insects than non-natives) … most birds feed their young insects and eat them themselves during breeding season, and having seed in your yard can attract rodents like chipmunks and possibly other birds (like crows and jays) who prey on eggs and nestlings.

      I think there’s a good chance that they are fine if they were 16 days old when they left the nest. Typically robins fledge at 13-15 days. If you keep an eye on your yard and neighborhood in the next couple of weeks, you may catch a glimpse of Mom or Dad feeding them and teaching them; at about 2 weeks of age juveniles become proficient at flying.

      Reply
  8. Eileen,
    I found a Robin On May 27th on my lawn, he was about 5 days old. The nest had been completely destroyed by a hawk I suppose, since I see one around my woods every day. I took great care of him, made sure he could fly and find his own food before I let him totally free, but continued to feed him to make sure he was getting enough. As soon as I opened the door around 5 am, he would fly to me and demand that I feed him with my tweezers even though he could totally do it. I always left fresh berries out for him to pick in case I was in the middle of something important. Last week I saw a male feeding him , I presumed it was his father. They even bathe together in my fontaine. He continued to come for his regular feedings about every half hour. Berries and warms all day. My question is, I had to go for surgery on Wednesday June 24th. I left berries out for him around 4:30am , I returned around 6pm but he never came back. Usually when I call his name he comes flying out of a tree and lands on my shoulder. Did he feel abandoned and left? Or is it more plausible that something got to him..

    Reply
    1. Since only a quarter of young American robins make it to adulthood it’s possible that something happened to him, but consider the timeline: If he was 5 days old on May 27, then he would normally have fledged around June 4. Parental care of fledglings reportedly lasts for 2-3 weeks (the ones I wrote about stayed around for 4 weeks; I’m not sure how unusual that is) and then they leave to be on their own. So, that means he normally would be cared for by his parents until right about now (June 4 to June 26 is 22 days).

      Leaving is a normal thing to do for a robin that age. You don’t want him coming to you for food; it’s always best for parents to feed & teach them and it’s fantastic that Dad found him. We should not be making wildlife dependent us; they should know how to act like birds and hopefully right now he’s exploring new territory and in a few months will join a winter flock so he can be with others of his kind. In the future, should this happen to you again, it would be best of follow the advice of Audubon: “If the nest is nowhere to be found or simply out of reach, just craft one yourself … Find a small container, like a strawberry basket, and load it with a scrap of T-shirt or some straw—-anything dry will do. Gently place the youngling inside, and affix the artificial nest in a tree close to where the bird was found, [as high up as possible.] Once you’ve returned the bird to a nest — whether real or homemade — keep an eye out for the parents. If they don’t return within an hour, call a wildlife rehabilitation center.” I’ve also heard of people putting a nestling under a shrub (where the parents might find him) while they kept an eye on it. But it sounds like your story probably had a happy ending.

      Reply
  9. Hi we had 4 eggs in robins nest, and only 2 hatched became big, one fell and died and only one survived , I saw it on the grass and it hopped in through fence, couldn’t fly tho and went in the raveen under many trees I hope it’s ok, as I was cleaning the deck I saw the other chick dead that was big too, and the other two premature all dried up, I feel so bad 🙁

    Reply
    1. I’m so sorry to hear this and know how you feel. I imagine it was lack of food for the 2 who died early. Hopefully the one who survived has been found by his/her parents and is doing well now. Researchers say that only about 1 in 4 make it to adulthood, so your experience corroborates this, sadly. I hope you see the fledgling sometime soon and that s/he stays healthy.

      Reply
  10. Your article was lovely. As silly as it sounds, after watching a young robin stretch out his wings and possibly fly for the first time with his momma watching on my patio, I have become quite attached and he has stuck around. He is quite a loud fellow and I can easily identify him by his song. He likes to sit on the top of our roof and sing. Is there a chance he will stay in the area or do they migrate? Can I do something to encourage him to stay when the weather starts to change?

    Reply
    1. I’m so glad you found a new friend! I do wonder, though, by your description of his singing, if he isn’t an adult male? Typically they sing from tall places to announce and defend their territory; I doubt a recently fledged robin would do that. Regardless, whether or not they migrate depends on where you live. Here in the Pacific Northwest (and most of the US), they stick around all winter but form very large flocks and may migrate short distances; they stick together until breeding season begins the following spring. They need to be in flocks, which encourages their survival. If you live in the far north, they could migrate southward to find food. You can read more about it here:

      Reply
  11. Reading your story brought me comfort: this morning, my husband and I awakened to find the robin nest that had been built beneath our home’s overhang, atop a downspout, lying on the ground, and the four babies that were 9 days old the victims of a racoon raid (judging by the coon excrement on the ground below). I am heartbroken. The mother and father had been sharing in the feeding, and had been robust in their efforts, taking turns almost continuously at foraging and feeding. They were vigilant and protective of the nest, and I feel terrible that we failed to protect them. Do you think they will have another brood yet this year? We are in north central Ohio.

    Reply
    1. I’m so sorry. Yes, robins typically have 1 to 3 broods and there’s still plenty of time. Robins have it rough, but I imagine it’s similar for almost all bird species. Nestling mortality is high, either due to predation or starvation; researchers say that only ~25% of young make it through their first year. Last year a pair of robins tried to nest FOUR times in or near our yard and each time crows harassed them so much that they abandoned their nests (I’m not sure if there were any eggs). To my knowledge, they were not able to produce any young at all last year. And this year, they seemed to be doing well in a nest in a neighbor’s yard, but then crows got the babies at 8 or 9 days of life. Hopefully you will notice “your” robins trying again very soon.

      Reply
  12. I came upon your post because we have robins dive bombing us whenever we go outside. It is more than 10 feet. The nest is empty at this point so I was wondering how much longer we have to endure this. We have starlings in the area that will push out the robin eggs, deposit their own and the robins seem none the wiser raising them as their own. I think this might be the case because I have not see any robin fledglings only starling ones.

    Thank you for providing me with all this information.

    Reply
    1. I have no idea when they might stop, but personally I’d be happy to have robins in my yard. They’re no doubt stressed and I’d suggest leaving them be as much as possible. They will likely start another nest soon, or perhaps they are in the process of it. I don’t know what you mean by “it is more than 10 feet.”

      Reply
  13. A pair of robins have built a nest on top of our outdoor light fixture at our back door right up against the house. There is a ~ 2 foot overhang about a foot above the nest. Despite this, I caught a crow dive bombing our house this morning and I think may have stole one baby. Is there anything we can do to protect the nest/ deter the crow, that will not interfere with the robins looking after their remaining young?

    Reply
    1. Unfortunately there’s not much you can do that wouldn’t also stress the robins. I hope by now the others are OK? We had a similar experience recently when a nest with 7 or 8 day-old babies in a neighboring yard was raided by a crow (didn’t actually witness it, but the robins abandoned the nest and there’s no sign of life). Just awful! There are people in our neighborhood who feed the crows; I wonder if you might too. Well, I hope all are not lost.

      Reply
  14. I have rescued a very young robin the dog found in the yard. The nest had been blown down in a windstorm. One bird was dead…the other barely alive and hypothermic.
    We tried renesting everything, but were unsure where to put it. Nothing came to care for the baby….so i did the stupid thing and raised it, very successfully into a strong and healthy bird.
    Now, with no parents to protect it i am distraught at the thought of releasing it without parents to show the way and protect.
    The cvirus has rehab organizations refusing to take in anything.
    Who can i turn to in the Atlanta area?

    Reply
    1. John, I’m so sorry to hear about this little robin and your distress. As you know, fledglings need their parents to teach them how to find food, etc. Also, as you may know, although you did what any compassionate person would do in the circumstances, it is illegal to rehab a migratory bird without a USFWS permit. So, I recommend contacting them and asking them what you should do. (And I’m sure you’ve seen this list, but just in case: https://awarewildlife.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/DNR-Wildlife-Rehabilitator-List.pdf). If you can’t find any help, I suppose you could gradually release it … that is, start with an outdoor “flight cage” if you have the ability to make one, and then progress to the outdoors while providing worms, fruit (especially berries!), etc. Best of luck to you and this bird. If you get a chance, please let us know how things work out.

      Reply
  15. Thank you for sharing this wonderful read and beautiful photos! I have recently discovered a Robin’s nest in our tree. Her nest is built on a bit of an angle, and I have discovered two eggs, in the last two days, that have fallen to the ground. I feel this could be happening due to the tipped angle she has built her nest, as she leaves and enters. She still has two eggs in the nest at this time. But it looks like they are close to the rim edge of the nest, instead of safely sitting in the bowl bottom of the nest. Is it true that she will abandon the nest if bothered by humans? I want to try gently and carefully trying to tip it to a more level angle, but do not want to disrupt or discourage her and her progress. Is there a safe way to help this mama bird, or should I just let nature do its thing? I am keeping a close eye on the eggs, feeling that at the point there are hatchlings, I might, just might, be placing some pillows under this tree to soften a baby birds fall 😁 (again…because of the tipped angle of this nest).

    Reply
    1. Lisa, I think you should intervene if you think you can help her. It’s a myth that birds will abandon their nest if a human touches it. Can you also place the fallen eggs back into the nest or did they break? I would just suggest doing it right after she leaves the nest and working as quickly as possible. I’m a bit upset this morning because I have found that a pair of robins who have a nest in a neighbor’s tree have gone … I’m quite sure a crow got the 7 or 8 day-old babies yesterday when there was commotion at the nest several times. These birds need all the help we can give them. Thank you and best of luck!

      Reply
  16. Suggestions ? We have four babies… hatched about two days ago . Hershey PA.
    Our temperatures are dropping down to freezing tonight in to tomorrow morning & again Saturday into Sunday morning. Can we protect them from the abnormal freezing temperatures ? They are nested in our Hanoki Evergreen off of our lower porch.

    Reply
    1. Hopefully it won’t be wet as well (although since the nest is in an evergreen that will help keep it dry). Since they’re so small, Mom’s body should be able to cover/protect them from the low temps (if they were older and larger that would be more difficult). That said, you could help provide food (as I did during the hot July weather I wrote about), since insects and earthworms and such will be much harder to find during the cold period … buy and put out some meal worms in the late afternoon and very early in the morning (alternatively, some wormy compost if you have it). I hope all goes well!

      Reply
  17. What great photos you’ve posted. I have been reading up everything I can find. We trimmed our bushes back two days ago and unfortunately cut a branch attached to a nest that caused the the nest to be unstable.

    I had to move the nest because it was falling and there are three chicks plus Mom.

    The chicks are now fine and from your photos they look about 6-9 days old.

    Reply
    1. Wow, they were lucky the nest and eggs weren’t destroyed (although the mud in their nests makes them fairly strong). Glad to hear all’s well now. I recommend any future pruning be done before March, but also keep an eye out for tiny nests of hummingbirds, who often build their nests before that (on the west coast, anyway).

      Reply
  18. I live in Rhode Island and this week a female Robin appears daily on a nearby roof and studies the area including our wild yard. I now wonder if she might have a nest close by. Will continue to look. Your piece was absolutely wonderful.

    Reply
  19. I enjoyed your article. I have lived in my home for nearly 25 years (will be 25 in October)…and this is the first year I have noticed a robin build a nest around my home. Hers is on the straight end of my downspout in the back of the house, under an eave. I first noticed the nest about 10 days ago. This afternoon, I noticed that the robin was standing on the edge of the nest; this was a change in behavior from previous days, when it appeared she was incubating…so I suspect the eggs inside the nest have hatched. Her nest is too high up for me to see what is actually going on up there and I don’t want to risk disturbing the mother by climbing a ladder to get a peak.

    Since finding this nest, I have become fascinated by robins and am learning all I can about these birds who are ever-present…so I found your post very interesting and informative. I feel somewhat protective of this mother and her nest. Your post did give me a good idea to perhaps water the grass in my back yard so she can have easier access to worms and the like. I’m hoping if she is successful, she will use my downspout again, either for another brood this summer..or perhaps next year.

    Reply
    1. I hope things continue to go well for them. Insects and worms aren’t as plentiful in mid-summer, so if you think she is having trouble getting enough food, consider purchasing some meal worms–I put some out on a hanging platform feeder and she seemed grateful for them. But if Dad’s around to help feed, that may not be such an issue.

      This is likely her last nest of the season, but hopefully she’ll be back again——we had a robin build a nest on top of an old one, two years later.

      Reply
  20. Gichi Migwetch, Thank you in Anishinaabe (Ojibway)
    As your title states Native Garden I’m going to think of the First Peoples from Turtleisland. 😉
    Thank you so much for sharing. We have a robin’s nest over our door frame and I was searching information. You have gifted me with good information and lovely images. Thank you again.
    Anna

    Reply
    1. Thank you for your sweet comment and for reminding me of Turtle Island! If only we could recapture ancient wisdom and reclaim the ecological harmony that once prevailed here. My best to you and your robin friends.

      Reply

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