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Blane Klemek: American robins a signature of spring

I saw firsthand a couple of weeks ago the importance of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs that retain their fruits throughout the winter are to wildlife, particularly to songbirds.

Several crabapple trees and highbush cranberry shrubs located at the Detroit Lakes DNR Area Headquarters were filled with large flocks of American robins feasting on the fruits of these plants.

Given the cold weather at the time and complete lack of insects, robins were taking full advantage of the food sources and were feasting on the abundant and nutritious fruits.

American robins are members of the thrush family, of which bluebirds are members as well.  

But typical thrushes are those large-bodied, rare to common, robin-like birds that range throughout North America and Central America.

In our neck of the woods, 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.

Four other rare species of thrushes occur too, but very rarely, if at all, in Minnesota. The Aztec thrush, rufous-backed thrush, clay-colored robin, and the fieldfare — all very different looking from one another, yet quite distinguishable as robins — range mostly in montane, pine-oak forests to riparian areas and dense woodlands of the continent.

 At least one record exists of the fieldfare along Minnesota’s North Shore.  

The American robin is the largest thrush at about 10-inches long from beak tip to tail tip.

One of the most recognizable birds that frequent our backyards and woodlands, it’s no wonder that the robin is often the first bird that a child learns to identify.

The males’ brick-red breast, dark head and bright yellow bill (females slightly duller in plumage coloration) are traits that set this friendly and beautiful 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, cock their heads to the side as if listening for something close to the ground, and then quickly stab with their beaks between blades of grass an insect, worm, caterpillar or grub.  

A misconception that many people have about the hunting mode of robins is that robins locate their food by listening, hence the tilting of their heads as though tuned into the sounds of an organism’s movement.

The fact is, however, that robins — though very possibly hear prey that may be noisily moving through vegetation — are mainly searching for prey with their keen vision, not with their ears.

If you observe birds enough, you will notice this with many other species.

Birds often turn their heads to the side to identify something, whether it’s food, other birds or animals, and objects.

Robins are one of the first birds of the morning to begin singing their delightfully melodious song.

It’s not uncommon to hear a robin, at least this time of year, begin singing at 4 a.m.  

Beautifully warbled and varied phrases separated by short pauses is the characteristic pattern, and one in which other species of birds’ songs 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.

Birding books often describe a particular bird’s song, like the aforementioned species, 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, the birds’ 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, viburnum (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 early in the spring, fruits and other foods from plants are very important to migrating birds like robins. Planting such trees and shrubs such as hawthorn, crabapple, chokecherry, nannyberry and cranberry can really help out robins and other birds.

It won’t be long and robins will be nesting once again; followed soon after by juvenile robins sporting their spotted breasts hopping alongside doting parents busily keeping the adult-sized and begging youngsters fed.

In doing so, the juvenile birds learn about where to find food, how to capture and forage for food and what tastes good.

And as spring and summer wanes and autumn commences, scores of robins will gather together in enormous flocks to migrate south for the winter months.

But in the meantime, we are fortunate to listen to and observe our own and very unique American robin as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@