Sometimes the most commonly seen birds are also the best teachers of bird behavior.
This is why American Robins are truly one of my favorite birds to watch during the spring nesting season.
Pretty much every home in North America with a lawn & some nearby trees will have robins nesting within view. It’s amazing how much we can learn from observing such a common bird that so often gets ignored.
So today I want to share a deep dive into the nesting habits of American Robins and hopefully inspire you to start watching these feathered friends a bit more closely!
Let’s start with some quick highlights to give you an overview of robin nesting habits…
- What makes robin nests special? Robins are some of the earliest songbirds to start nesting in spring. They typically build their first nest before the leaves are open on trees. Robins also live very close to humans making their nests some of the easiest to observe.
- What do robin nests look like? Robins make cup nests. The nest looks like a little bowl made of dried grasses & mud. Robin nests can be placed in a wide variety of locations including coniferous and deciduous trees or shrubs, typically within 20 feet of the ground.
- Who builds the nest? Robin nests are built primarily by the female with some help from the male. Females can be seen with muddy patches on their chest during nest building.
- How many eggs do robins lay? Robins typically lay 4 eggs, but can lay between 3-7. Most robins will lay 2 or 3 broods (sets of eggs) per year.
- How long does it take for robin eggs to hatch? On average, it takes 12-14 days for robin eggs to hatch. After the eggs hatch, they spend another 2 weeks in the nest before they’re mature enough to fledge. Fledged robins can be identified by their mottled coloration and juvenile behavior.
- Do robins mate for life? Robins are serial monogamists. In general they only have one partner per year, but they may switch from year to year.
Of course, the real magic happens when you’re able to observe robins nesting with your own eyes and ears.
Direct experience always has more impact than facts on a page, so I’d like to help you see robins nesting for yourself… The first step is to determine exactly when robins are nesting in YOUR specific location.
When Do Robins Build Nests?
In early spring, robins are some of the first songbirds to begin nesting. The first nest is typically made even before the deciduous trees have their leaves open.
This typically happens in April, but it all depends on how far north you are.
In Stokes Guide To Bird Behavior (which I highly recommend for all serious bird lovers), Donald stokes points out that, “Breeding times vary ten to fifteen days for each change of five degrees latitude”.
This means if you live in Philedelphia, Indianapolis or Denver (40 degrees latitude), robins will start nesting in early April. In the southern United states, robin nesting begins in March, and further north in Canada, some robins won’t start nesting until May.
These dates are useful to know as a general guideline, however the only way to truly know when the robins are nesting is to look for behavioral indicators of nesting and pre-nesting. This is also much more fun because you get to observe the signs with your own eyes!
There are 4 stages of robin behavior that indicate when robins are preparing to nest:
1. Migration & Seasonal Movement From Winter Flocks
Starting approximately one month before nest building begins, migratory robins return from the south.
The first robins to arrive are flocks of males and can be recognized by their darker and more vibrant plumage than the females.
This typically happens while there’s still snow on the ground. The male flocks will gather to feed in sunny locations where they hunt in the exposed grass for worms & insect activity.
In milder regions where robins stick around all year long, this stage can last throughout the entire winter.
2. Female Robins Arrival
A week or two later, the female robins start to arrive. If you watch carefully, you can spot this transition by when the flocks become a mixture of males & females.
The difference between male & female robins can be subtle so I highly recommend using binoculars. Compared side by side, the difference between male & female robins is quite noticeable by the darker coloration of the male.
3. Territorial Behavior & Courtship
The arrival of females in the breeding territory is quickly followed by the beginning of territorial behavior and courtship.
At this point, the male flocks will start to break up, and instead you’ll see singing & territorial aggression centered around smaller territories being defended by solo male robins.
(I covered the sounds associated with these behaviors in much greater detail in my article on 7 robin calls everyone should know)
4. Courted Robin Pairs
Within a few days as nesting becomes imminent, you’ll consistently see a close pair of one male and one female feeding together on the lawn.
When you see courted pairs feeding together, this is your cue to start looking for nest building. Within a few days the robins will start gathering nest materials.
Bear in mind that at this stage, the trees will still be bare and there may even still be snow on the ground!
Your next challenge is to find the nest location (without disturbing the robins or revealing their home to predators!)
Where Do Robins Build Their Nests?
Robins build nests in almost any sheltered location including trees, shrubs, even on decorative wreaths and the eaves beside your home. Most nests tend to be built within 20 feet of the ground.
Additionally, the first nest of the year is typically made in a coniferous tree or shrub.
Robins choose coniferous nests because they start nesting before the leaves are out on the deciduous trees. For this reason, the first nest of the year also tends to be the easiest to locate.
Here’s an example of a robin nest location I was watching this year:
Notice the alert behavior of the robin as it first approaches, and then quietly slips inside the shrub. You need to watch carefully or you could easily miss the signs that there’s a nest here.
A few tips for locating robin nests:
- Choose a single position on the land to sit and quietly observe robins for at least 10-15 minutes every day during their early nesting season. (How to use a sit spot)
- Good locations include lawns at the edge of trees & forested zones.
- Look for repetitive flight patterns as the robins travel back and forth with nest materials in their mouths.
- Use binoculars to confirm when they have grass or mud in their mouths.
- Look for females with mud on their chest from shaping the cup nest.
- Look in the direction they’re flying with nest materials. Are there any coniferous trees or shrubs over there?
- Reposition yourself to get a better view of possible nest sites.
- Keep enough distance that you don’t influence their behavior.
I have more tips for finding nests in my other article on how to find bird nests, so check that out if you get stuck here.
Remember – the first robin nest of the year is always the easiest to locate so your best success will come from applying these tips at the earliest signs of nesting.
Beware of Robin Nest Predators
In my experience, the first robin nest of the year also tends to be extremely vulnerable to predation and sudden reversals of weather (like a late winter storm).
I’ve been watching robins nest in my yard for over 10 years and in all that time I’ve never witnessed the first robin nest of the year actually be successful. That’s crazy!
I’m not sure why exactly this is. Maybe they just need a bit of time to smarten up and choose a better location. Or maybe they’re taking a chance on the weather in hopes of getting an early start.
However, it might also be that nest predators like crows & jays have an advantage when the forest is still bare of leaves. Whatever the reason, it’s very important to use care when watching robin nests.
Please be respectful of the life & death situation that birds experience every day while trying to raise a family. They don’t need us humans making things harder for them so it’s important that we stay alert to minimize our impact on the wildlife.
Nest robbers like Crows & Jay are smart enough to take cues from humans in order to locate nests!
How Long Does It Take For Robins To Lay Eggs?
After the robins finish building their nest, they will wait approximately one week before the female begins laying eggs. This gives them a chance to build strength and wait for ideal weather.
The female lays one egg per day, typically stopping when there are 4 eggs in the nest.
Robins are very secretive about mating, so this is a difficult behavior to observe, but rest assured if the eggs are being placed in the nest it means there’s mating happening.
Robin Egg Incubation
Next, there’s a period of 12-14 days when the eggs are developing. During this time, the female will be sitting on her nest for the majority of the time day and night to keep things at the right temperature.
During incubation, robins are quite active around the nest area. The female typically comes out a few times per day to feed, so if you see the female at this time, she might lead you to the nest.
The male will also be close by, watching for nest robbers, predators like hawks & cats, as well as rival robins invading their territory.
If you see robins alarming at crows, jays or roosting owls in the early spring, this is often a good indicator that you’re close to a nest. Robins will also sometimes alarm at you if you get too close to a nest, so beware of this.
(See also: How To Approach Birds Without Scaring Them)
Incubation is also the period of time when male robins are most vigorous about singing.
Most songbirds reach their peak of song during courtship, but with robins, they sing strongest and longest right before the eggs hatch. This is a great clue to watch for.
How Long Does It Take For Robins To Leave The Nest?
After the eggs hatch, it takes another 14-16 days before the nestlings are ready to leave the nest.
Robins hatch in an altricial state which means they have no feathers and cannot move, their eyes are closed and they must be fed by their parents to survive.
This is another time when robin nests can be very easy to locate. Look for parent birds bringing food to the young. When they arrive with the food, you may hear a soft “cheep cheep cheep” coming from inside the nest.
At times, this feeding will go on all day long in a highly rhythmic fashion that can be timed almost like clockwork:
- 3 minutes away gathering food
- Robins return & feed the babies for 30 seconds
- 4 minutes away gathering more food
- Repeat all day long
As exciting as it is to see baby birds, this is a very vulnerable time for robins. Please remember to respect their space to not stress out the parents or attract attention from jays & crows. Watch from a distance.
If predators come close during this time, the robins will respond with loud & aggressive alarm calls.
I once watched a pair of robins feeding their nestlings while a barn owl roosted in a nearby cedar tree. They alarmed at that owl all day long, all while flying back and forth collecting food for the nestlings. It’s a stressful life for parents!
What Does It Mean When You See Robin Fledglings?
After two weeks in the nest, the young robins are finally ready to fly out, however they are still dependent on their parents for food at this time.
In general, the male handles care and feeding of the fledglings while the female makes a new nest.
Robins will continue laying eggs throughout the entire spring, and even sometimes into summer, typically raising two broods (sets of eggs) and sometimes three.
This is why you can still find signs of nest-building and robins feeding nestlings going well into summer, and often the highest populations of fledglings aren’t seen until as late as August.
Bear in mind that after the leaves are out on deciduous trees, robin have a lot more options for finding secret little spots to place their nests and can be harder to observe.
Do Robins Sleep In Their Nests?
Female robins will only sleep in the nest to keep their young warm during the incubation & nestling stage. All other times of year, robins will find a hidden perch for the night’s sleep.
Male robins will even continue sleeping communally all throughout the nesting season while defending their territories from each other during the day. (Learn more at: Where Do Birds Go At Night?)
If you ever hear robins making a loud raucous at dusk, this is very likely the roosting calls of males as they travel to their roost. Or in some cases it’s a reaction to owls in the area (you can even use these alarms to find local owls)
Just remember – the real purpose of bird nests is for raising young. It’s not their home and they will abandon the nest as soon as the nestlings are old enough to fledge.
5 Ways To Observe Robins Nesting
To sum it all up, there are 5 key moments in the robin life cycle when their nests are easiest to locate:
- When the nest is being built.
- When the female is sitting on the nest.
- After the eggs hatch and parents are feeding nestlings.
- When it’s the first nest of the year.
- Immediately after the 4 stages of pre-nesting behavior.
The most important thing is to realize that you have to open your awareness and really tune in with your surroundings in order to see the signs that robins are nesting.
Birds like the american robin are incredibly sneaky forest ninjas whose entire survival depends on keeping their nests hidden from nosy animals (even squirrels will steal from nests!) and humans like us.
- Observing the secrets of nesting is a skill that takes practice, however once you develop the skill, it becomes part of your naturalist toolkit that you can access in the future.
- Each time you successfully find a nest using these methods, it becomes a little bit easier to repeat your success in the future.
Most importantly, have fun out there and go make friends with your local robins!