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The Early Bird

American robins usher in spring

By Susan Campbell

It is early spring in central North Carolina and few migrants are this far north, let alone back and ready to breed. Flocks of American robins have been evident all winter, feasting on dogwoods, hollies and other berry-laden shrubs. But now they are less interested in eating and ready to start a new family. They are, indeed, the “early birds.”

American robins are found throughout most of the United States and Canada. They are one of the most familiar birds on the continent. In winter, thousands from across Canada and the northern tier of states move southward, not as a response to the drop in temperatures but in search of food. Although robins are insectivorous during the warmer months, they become frugivorous in winter. Flocks of thousands are known to forage and roost together here in the Southeast.

Both male and female robins have long black legs, orangey-red breasts and dark gray backs. Males, however, have a darker head and more colorful breasts. Robins use their thin, yellow bills to probe the vegetation and soft ground for invertebrates in the warmer months. Spiders and caterpillars are common prey as well. These birds use both sight and sound to locate prey. It is not unusual to see a robin standing still and then cocking its head as the bird zeroes in on a potential food item just under the soil surface.

Here in our area, come March, male robins return to the territories they have defended in past summers. In bright, fresh plumage, they will sing most of the day from the tops of trees and other elevated perches, attempting to attract a mate. Their repeated choruses of “cheer-ee-o, cheer-ee-up” echo from lowland mixed woodlands to high elevation evergreen forests as well as open parklands in between. Females will accept a male for the season, but once summer draws to a close, so does the pair bond.

Females are the ones who select a nest site and build the nest. Suitable locations are typically on a branch lower in the canopy and support a hefty, open cup nest. Twigs and rootlets are gathered and then reinforced with mud, often the soft castings of the very earthworms they love to eat. The nest will then be lined with fine grasses before the female robin lays three to five light blue eggs. Constant incubation by the mother robin takes about two weeks, followed by two more weeks of feeding by both parents before the young fledge. Robins can potentially raise four broods in a season — although rarely do all nestlings survive. And fewer yet (about 25 percent) will make it through their first year, to breeding age.

Surviving young of the year will wander, often with siblings or a parent, until late summer, when they will flock up with other local birds. Small groups in North Carolina may move farther south if winter food here is scarce or if competition with larger northern flocks is too great. But not long after the New Year dawns, the same birds will be on the way back. Increasing day length triggers their return journey. And thus, the cycle will begin anew.  PS

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