American Robins (Turdus migratorius) are one of the most familiar feathered residents in all of North America. Not only are they the largest thrush in Massachusetts, they are also unquestionably our most successful—breeding from the Berkshires to Nantucket and everywhere in between.
Overall, their numbers in Massachusetts have greatly increased throughout the last century. Suburban landscapes are incredibly beneficial to robins, since their ornamental plantings and grassy lawns provide an abundance of feeding and nesting habitat.
Both males and females are grey above, orange to brick-red below, and their bills are yellow. Very young robins will show a speckled breast rather than the adult red. Full-grown adults are of medium size (about 10" long). When a robin flies, it shows two small white tips at the corners of its dark tail.
Robins in Winter
Tradition places the appearance of the American robin as a harbinger of spring. This may be why each winter Mass Audubon receives hundreds of reports of robin sightings, sometimes numbering hundreds of birds. Robins have been known to overwinter in Massachusetts since at least the early 1900s. The number of wintering robins depends largely on the severity of the weather and the abundance of food.
Most birds that regularly winter in New England are well suited to withstand cold temperatures. In the fall, many birds grow additional feathers for insulation. To keep warm while roosting, birds fluff their feathers. Because of the way their feathers are layered, this behavior traps pockets of warm air next to the skin. During winter days, many birds feed almost continually, storing up fat that they burn off at night to keep warm. There isn't much one can feed robins in the winter. They’re very adept at finding their preferred food and rarely visit feeding stations. During severe weather, robins may eat raisins, berries, or pieces of apples placed on the ground.
Robins do most of their feeding and foraging on the ground, where they will run or hop for several short steps and then often assume an erect posture, always on the lookout for possible danger. During winter and migration especially, robins often travel in flocks. It's not unusual to see a dozen or more birds foraging on the same lawn or perching in the same tree.
Nesting & Life Cycle
Nests are commonly built in trees and shrubs, reportedly as high as 70 feet but usually 10-25 feet. A preference for coniferous sites is evident early in the season. Robins occasionally nest on porches, sheltered windowsills, and the eaves of buildings, and artificial nesting shelves are sometimes accepted. Rarely, nests may be found in the crevices of natural cliffs or boulders, in stone walls, and even on the ground.
Robins can have up to three broods in one breeding season. Typical brood size is 3-5 eggs, and incubation lasts approximately 12-14 days. Both the male and female are involved in feeding, raising, and protecting the chicks until they are old enough to forage for themselves.
During the warm months, a robin with an earthworm in its beak is a familiar sight. In addition to worms, they eat many insects and ground-dwelling larvae, as well as caterpillars, grasshoppers, and beetles.
In winter, robins are nomadic. They fly in flocks and eat the berries of trees and shrubs that hold their fruit through the winter, including red cedar, American holly, hawthorn, and certain dogwood and crab apple species. As they deplete the food sources in one location, they move on in search of a new supply.
Habitat & Range
In general, the nesting, or summer range of robins extends from the tree limit in northern North America to southern Mexico, and the winter range covers southern Canada to Guatemala. Although many robins do spend the winter in Massachusetts, these are not necessarily the same robins that we see here in summer.
It’s likely that robins wintering in Massachusetts migrate here from northern New England or Canada. Most of the robins that breed in Massachusetts migrate to the southern states with the onset of cold weather in the fall.
The territorial song of the robin—a loud and continuous rich caroling, rising and falling in pitch and usually described as cheerily-cheerily-cheerily-cheerrio—is first heard on warm mornings in late March and early April.
Dawn and dusk choruses reach a peak in late April but continue, gradually diminishing in intensity, through mid-July. The familiar call notes of the robin, often rendered kwee-kwee-kuk-kuk-kuk or sometimes puck-kuk-kuk-kuk, are uttered with emphatic jerks of the tail and at varying speeds and intensity of delivery, depending on the bird’s emotional state.
The flight call, a thin see-lip, may be heard at any time of the year.