Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Appreciating the commonly lovely American robin

By Cheryl Kimball May 25. 2018 7:21PM
Our columnist is happy to share space in her dog house with a nesting pair of robins, while anxiously waiting for the new additions to the family. (Courtesy/Cheryl Kimball)

THE SIGHTING of a robin has always been emblematic of the coming of spring for those of us in northern New England. We feel that way even though we often see robins throughout the winter (despite the fact that most guide books, including Sibley’s, say they winter largely in the southern United States). The image of a robin on a snow-free, sun-warmed spring lawn cocking its head then plucking a worm from the thawed earth represents almost everything spring and everything bird.

The American robin is a lovely bird, but it is also rather common and therefore its loveliness is often overlooked — the dandelion equivalent of the bird world. The male, for the most part, has a distinctly dark head with some white around its eyes, a deep chestnut breast, dark wings and tail, and a bit of white under its tail. The female is similarly colored just not quite as deep in tone, and has more facial white and some striping under the chin. Both have yellow bills and what I have always thought of as a grumpy look, noticeable even in nestlings.

The American robin (Turdus migratorius) is a member of the thrush family, as are bluebirds. Their bills, as described in “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior,” are relatively slender, not sharply pointed “adapted for eating soft foods, such as insects, worms and berries, but not seeds.” Sibley also says that, “The American robin has extraordinarily broad habitat preferences and may rank as one of the most adaptable American birds; it occurs throughout North America in virtually all forest types, as well as in open areas such as lawns and parklands.”

This spring I’ve seen numerous postings on Facebook about robins nesting in and around people’s homes. One friend noted that a robin for the second year in a row has chosen to nest in a hanging plant. Another posting was a newspaper story about a robin nesting in a wreath hanging on the door of a family’s home. I feel like there are more close robin encounters than I have seen in the past, including one of my own.

Before I left for a few days’ vacation, I noticed a male robin sitting on the top of the chain link fence of our dog pen with nesting material hanging from its mouth. A large collection began accumulating on the floor of the “dog house” (a former woodshed). Directly overhead, on one side of a cross board in the ceiling that holds a light fixture in the middle, long strings of dried grass were laid across the board dangling over the edge on both sides. Before I left, the nest-building got no further and I decided it had been abandoned because of the activity of the dogs coming and going.

By the time I got back several days later, however, the nest was built — the dried grass provided a base upon which a cup-like nest sat. A pile of dried grasses remained on the floor and I wondered if that was not extra building material, as I originally thought, but put there to provide a soft landing on the wood floor for nestlings that may fall out of the nest. A female robin’s head could be seen sticking off one side of the nest, her tail sticking off the other.

She has been very attentive to her eggs. Since incubation is only 12-14 days, I became eager to see the eggs before they hatched. I never saw them with my own eyes but with an outstretched arm from atop a ladder using a cellphone, I got a picture of four beautiful robin-egg-blue eggs. This robin family is nothing if not typical — four eggs is the norm, according to the “Peterson Field Guide to Nesting Birds” in the United States east of the Mississippi River, “occasionally three, rarely five.” Robins often have two to three broods per season.

The female sits on the eggs. I have only seen the male around in the evenings. He seems to check in on things, hopping up on the chain link fence. He may go in to visit — that I haven’t observed — but if he does it is a brief visit and he is out again. The female robin is completely unfazed by the comings and goings of either the dogs or me when I go out to hustle the dogs in or to clean up the pen.

The barn is full of swallows, phoebes nest on any flat board they can find, but this is the first time in the 24 years I have lived on this property that a robin family has integrated itself into our built world. I am, of course, enjoying every minute and welcome another addition to my wild family who all make it very difficult to think about ever being able to willingly leave this place.

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at

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