The sighting of many bird species returning to the Bitterroot represents spring, however, one species stands out as the true indicator, the American robin.
My first 2019 sighting of this American symbol was March 15, when I observed two adult males perched in the barren branches of a cottonwood tree. Soon these birds will be singing their beautiful melody that peaks early in the morning just before first light, especially where robins tend to flock in tall pine trees.
So why has this birds become such a symbol of spring? Perhaps it’s because of a Russian-born early American singer/songwriter, Al Jolson, who was struck by the jovial nature of the bird and its song. The famous 1926 lyrics best describe the arrival of robins and how our mood is lifted when we hear the melody of the robin’s song. Listen to it on YouTube sung by Bing Crosby in the 1940s.
“When the red, red Robin Comes bob-bob bobbin' along
When the red, red Robin comes bob, bob, bobbin' along, along
There'll be no more sobbin' when he starts throbbin' his old sweet song”
With all of its popularity across the U.S., few of us know much about this bird other than perhaps its familiar red-chestnut breast and its uncanny ability to detect worms while foraging on backyard lawns.
Watching robins search for worms on your lawn reveals a pattern where the bird will take three to five steps, stop turn its head to the side, pause and then strike, pulling out a three-inch earthworm from the moist soil.
Robins have excellent vision and can detect movement in the soil or grass where a worm might be moving underground. Robins feed on protein rich food sources such as worms and grasshoppers, making numerous trips to feed their young. Upon arriving at the nest, the adult will awaken four chicks that appear to be all mouth as they open their bills in anticipation of the worm or insect.
The American robin belongs to a group of birds known as thrushes that were once hunted for food. The passage of the Migratory Bird Act put a stop to the hunting of robins and today they number in the 320 million range, populating most of North America.
Robins are thought to be the third most abundant bird in North America following the red-winged blackbird and the non-native European starling. As with most migratory birds, robins will leave northern states like Montana in November and fly to warmer temperatures south returning when temperatures begin to thaw the ground and worms and insects become available.
Robins will have several nest attempts in one season with multiple successful broods each year. The female, less colorful than the male, will construct a bowl shaped nest often lined with mud, grass and horse hair. She will deposit three to five light blue eggs which after incubation, will hatch in about two weeks.
The young are totally dependent upon the parents to feed them up until they fledge and leave the nest. Robins do well in urban areas often building nests on porch beams, barns and other structures.
I had one female build a nest on the top rung of my ladder which rendered that ladder “out of use” until her young had fledged. If you ever experience a robin repeatedly flying at you uttering a sharp chirp in May or June, you can surmise that there is a nest nearby.
Another common phenomenon with robins is their persistent attacks at their own reflection in a window or mirror. Bird droppings on your vehicle side mirror are a sure sign that the culprit is a male robin perching on the mirror pecking at his own reflection, thinking it is an intruder in his territory.
We had a male robin continually peck and fly into his reflection at one of the Teller’s office windows. It became distracting enough that we placed a mounted great horned owl in the window which to my surprise did absolutely nothing to deter the attacks. Placing paper or other opaque material on the reflective surface is the only proven technique to prevent this behavior which also protects the bird from damaging its bill.
After a long winter where many of us are looking forward to floating down the Bitterroot, rest assured that spring has arrived and the signs and sounds of wildlife species like the American robin are proof that the warm temperatures of summer are not far off.
Sam Lawry, Teller Wildlife Refuge Executive Director has 35 plus years in the wildlife conservation profession. His contributions to the Ravalli Republic are intended to share some of that knowledge of wildlife in the Bitterroot with the community. If you would like more information about Teller Wildlife Refuge please visit our website at www.tellerwildlife.org.