Last fall while performing a few outdoor chores, I propped two, 8-foot posts upright against the side of the garage. I planned to put them away later, but never did. The posts stood there all winter long.
Sometime this past May when I finally got around to the task, I glanced up at the tops of the two posts just as I was about to push them to the ground. However, sitting neatly across the tops of both posts was a large bird nest constructed of grass and mud. It was the easily recognizable nest of the American robin.
The two posts are still leaning against the old garage and will undoubtedly stay there for the remainder of the summer. Indeed, as I write these words, Mr. and Mrs. Robin are dutifully raising their second brood.
Familiar as they are, American robins, members of the thrush family, of which the eastern bluebird is too, are attractive migratory songbirds. Typical thrushes are large-bodied, robin-like birds that range throughout North and Central America. In northern Minnesota, six thrushes can be found: American robin, wood thrush, veery, Swainson's thrush, gray-cheeked thrush, and hermit thrush. And every once in awhile a seventh, the varied thrush, appears in our backyards.
The American robin is the largest thrush at about 10-inches long. One of the most ubiquitous birds in our backyards and woodlands, it's no wonder that the robin is often the first bird a child learns to identify. The males' brick-red breast, dark head, and bright yellow bill are traits that set this friendly and handsome bird apart from other birds.
One of the behaviors so common of the American robin is the manner in which they walk and feed. We often observe robins on our lawns searching for one of their favorite foods, earthworms. Typical of their style is to fly to the ground, remain still for a few seconds, then hop forward in several quick bounds and stop again.
In looking for food, robins bend down slightly, cocking their heads to the side as if listening for something close to the ground, and then quickly stabbing between blades of grass an insect, worm, caterpillar or grub with their beaks.
Many people believe that robins locate their food by listening - hence the tilting of their heads as though hearing the sounds of an insect's movements.
The fact is, however, that robins - though very possibly hearing prey that might be noisily moving through vegetation - are mainly searching for prey with their keen vision, not with their ears.
If you observe birds long enough, you will notice this with many other species too. Whether for food, other birds and animals or objects, birds often turn their heads to the side to identify something with their eyesight.
Robins are one of the first birds in the morning to begin singing their pleasurable song. It's not uncommon to hear a male robin during the spring breeding season singing at 4 a.m. Beautifully warbled and varied phrases separated by short pauses, is the characteristic pattern - and one in which songs of other species of birds tend to resemble too.
"Robin-like" songs are sung by rose-breasted grosbeaks, red-eyed vireos, tanagers and Baltimore orioles. Sometimes the songs of these birds are mistakenly identified as belonging to the American robin. Bird books often describe a particular bird's song as robin-like. Such comparisons are testament to the commonness and familiarity of the robin.
While the diet of robins during the breeding and nesting season consists of primarily insects, worms and other invertebrates, robins feed on a wide variety of food. Throughout much of the year robins feed on mostly berries and other fruits and seeds. Sumac, grape, cedar, cranberry, mountain ash, raspberry, serviceberry and nannyberry are just some of the many plant foods robins eagerly seek out and consume.
For this reason it is a great idea to plant fruit-bearing trees and shrubs that retain their fruits throughout the winter months for the eventual return of springtime robins. When insects are hard to find during late springs, fruits and other foods from plants are very important to migrating birds like robins. Planting such trees and shrubs such as hawthorn, crabapple, chokecherry and others, are extremely beneficial to robins and other birds during unseasonable weather.
After spending only about 14 days in the nest after hatching, juvenile robins leave the only home they've ever known for the uncertainties of the world below. Sporting spotted breasts, the fledglings hop alongside doting parents that busily keep the adult-sized and begging youngsters fed. In doing so, the young birds learn about where to find food, how to capture and forage for food and what tastes good and what doesn't.
About two weeks after the chicks have fledged, the baby robins are capable of flying as swiftly and strongly as the adults. And soon afterwards when summer comes to an end, and autumn begins, scores of robins will gather together in immense flocks and fly south for the winter months.
In the meantime, the American robin will continue to delight us for several more months, at least until early November, sometimes a little longer, with they're beauty, song, and charming demeanor as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org