“Tut, Tut, Tut!”
Who is that bird? It’s the North American Robin!
Many people will recognize the familiar red breast of a neighbourhood robin feeding on the lawn.
It might be easy to pass this bird by without stopping because it’s so common and familiar.
But that would be a mistake…
Did you realize this very common and abundant bird is one of the most important birds for anyone who wants to have deeper knowledge of nature?
When beginner naturalists ask which birds they should study first, I always recommend the robin.
The reason is this:
Just because something is common doesn’t make it any less interesting. It doesn’t mean there’s any less opportunity to observe a wide variety of interesting behaviour & activities.
Common robins are one of the best birds to study because you’ll very quickly get exposed to lots of different bird behaviours.
They’re literally a goldmine of insight about what’s happening in your local environment.
Today, let me give you the straight facts about why robins are probably the best bird to have at the top of your “awesome list”.
#1 Robins Vocalize More Than Other Birds
Robins are very vocal birds.
Much more than some other birds.
Robins have a huge variety of songs, calls and sounds that are used to communicate different messages.
This immediately gives you a lot more opportunities to eavesdrop on their conversations.
Some sounds express territory. Some sounds are used to attract a mate in springtime. Some sounds are used as alarm calls to warn other birds of predators.
You can use these sounds to gain insight about what’s happening in the environment around you.
When I go outside I’m always listening for what the robins are saying and doing. So what should you listen for?
American robin songs are long melodious phrases that can be heard from a very long distance. Here’s an example robin song recording from the Macaulay library of nature sounds:
Songs are used by males in springtime to mark their territory. It’s a sign the birds are getting ready for mating season.
Amazingly, each male robin sings a little bit differently from other nearby competitors.
They will also vary the speed & length of their songs according to time of day and the specific context of their singing.
Ornithological researchers have barely scratched the surface of what you can learn from the song of a robin, but even a basic familiarity will help you make some great discoveries in the field.
Calls & Alarms
The thing that really separates robin vocalizations from other birds is their huge variety of calls and alarms.
Robins have very soft feeding calls to stay in touch with family members while feeding on the ground.
They make indicator calls when they fly to a new location, and other calls still for when they fly down towards a feeding area.
They also have specific alarm calls for a whole spectrum of potential predators and threats like cats, nest robbers, owls and hawks.
Here’s an example recording of robin calls & alarms again from the Macaulay library of nature sounds:
In this recording you’ll hear a variety of alarms and calls including the high pitched aerial predator alarm.
How To Recognize Robin Alarms
People are often surprised that the best indicators of robin alarms have almost nothing to do with the particular sound being made.
In my own experience, the best way to recognize robin alarms is by the context. I shared a good example of how this works with owl alarms in another article.
Here’s a great example I made of some robins alarming at a barn owl:
If you want a more detailed breakdown of what’s happening in this recording, just go to my article about finding owls with bird language.
I also talk a lot more about how to recognize bird alarm calls in my bird language blueprint online course, where I teach methods you can use to track wildlife by listening to bird alarms.
#2 Robins Have Lots Of Predators
There’s a reason why robins are so expressive and vocal.
Can you guess what it is?
As someone who loves tracking wildlife in the outdoors, I’ve noticed that one of the most common birds that gets eaten is the robin:
Robins are rather plump and juicy birds. They have much more meat on their bones than something like a sparrow or chickadee.
Their larger size also makes it more challenging to hide and they’re a bit slower than many other species.
All this boils down to the fact that robins have lots of predators they need to be very tuned in.
Here’s a list of all the animals I have personally been able to locate by following robin alarms:
- House cat
- Mountain Lion
- Barn Owl
- Barred Owl
- Red Fox
- Black Tailed Deer
- Cooper’s Hawk
- Sharp-Shinned Hawk
- Red-Tailed Hawk
- Bald Eagle
- American Crow
- American Raven
- Blue Jay
- Turkey Vulture
And this is by no means a complete list!
I would absolutely expect to find many other related animals on this list from the cat, dog & hawk family, or anything else that might pose a threat to medium sized songbirds.
The point is robins will alarm at many different animals so you should pay attention!
#3 Robins Are Easy To Find And Observe
Everybody loves a rare bird, but always remember… The birds you see most often are easier to learn from.
Robins are easy to study because they’re easy to find. You can find robins in almost any habitat whether forest or field.
The trick to locating robins is knowing their diet. If you can find their food then you find them too.
So what do robins eat?
Mostly all you need to know is that robins eat worms… but they do have different feeding strategies in different habitat types.
In large open fields you’ll often find robins in large flocks. They seem to share these abundant feeding zones quite freely even during nesting season.
However, large gatherings are both a curse and a benefit. You’ll notice that large flocks of robins frequently attract bird eating hawks.
You’ll notice it becomes very common to see robins flying up into a sentinel position. They keep watch for each other and warn of approaching danger.
When the hawk moves close you’ll get to see the mad dash of robins fleeing for their lives.
In tighter habitats with less open space and visibility, robins will use a completely different strategy for finding food. They tend to feed in mated pairs and rely less on visual communication.
As autumn and winter approaches, it’s also common to see robins feeding in treetops on berries.
#4 Excellent Teachers Of Bird Behavior
There are two types of bird watchers in this world…
Birding Style #1 – Life Listers
The first type is people who are only interested in filling their “Life list”. (Like that movie, “The Big Year”)
- How many different birds can I see?
- How many rare birds can I see?
Birding Style #2 – Watchers
The second type is people who want to understand all the who’s, what’s, when’s and why’s of bird behaviour.
- It’s about quality not quantity
- How well can I know the birds I see every day?
- What can the birds teach me about nature?
Of course I’m probably biased, but I personally find bird behaviour and deeper study of individual birds much more interesting than trying to see as many rare birds as possible.
There’s nothing wrong with going to see a rare bird when the opportunity is there, but I’ve find it much more rewarding to learn the birds in more depth.
That’s why I spend the vast majority of my bird time watching species that live every day right in my own backyard – like the american robin.
Common Robin Behaviours To Look For:
Robins are very territorial birds. Look for places where they fight with other robins. Where does the male sing from? How many robins sing within earshot of your front door?
Robins tend to nest about 10-15 feet up in coniferous trees. Can you spot the signs of nest building? Can you hear the nestlings begging for food?
Nesting is over. The birds are basically full grown, but they’re still 100% dependent on their parents for food. Can you spot groups of 2-4 juvenile robins bugging their parents?
Yes robins mostly eat worms. But let’s go deeper. When do they not eat worms? Where do they do most of their feeding? How long do they feed in one place before moving somewhere else?
What kind of seasonal movement happens with your local robins? Do they change their core territory in late summer versus springtime? Do they go south for winter? Or do you suddenly get a flurry of robin flocks from the north when things get cold?
I’ve noticed that some places the robins seem very plump and well fed, while other places the robins are very skinny. What’s up with that? If you’re lucky you might get to see an albino robin.
All of these robin behaviours are probably already happening in your own backyard. The question is have you noticed them?
Asking The Question “Why”
One last tip – when you see a bird doing something interesting there are always deeper layers that you can discover by asking “why”.
- Why are the robins nesting in this tree? Why not that other tree?
- Why do the robins feed in the backyard every morning but not in the afternoon? Where do they go?
- Why are the robins always so agitated in the schoolyard, yet more relaxed in my backyard?
So those are some straight facts about the North American Robin.
If I’ve convinced you to stop, watch and listen a little bit more carefully the next time you spot that little red breast on the lawn then my work is complete.
Now go and connect with your local robins!
We live in Northeast, USA, and enjoy feeding and watching birds. There is one sound that we have heard, and we have not found the bird that makes it. It is a “beep” that sounds very digital and goes on for minutes at a time with a brief, constant rest inbetween utterances. We heard this in winter, early afternoon in Central PA and 10:00 PM in Northern Nj in Janauary. It sounds like an alarm call. The one we heard in the early afternoon in PA today had a descending note after the beep. We have listened to birds for years and are totally perplexed. It sounds digital.
Brian Mertins says
Thanks for sharing Darlene! Mystery birds can be very tricky sometimes, especially when you’re just going by sound. If you can get close enough to see it, that might give you some extra details to help narrow things down. Observing the body language while it vocalizes can also help you confirm whether this is indeed an alarm or not.