The marvel of robins
Until you see a million migrating robins, you may think you know all there is to know about our Robin Redbreast
Published: April 20, 2012
|“What?” I heard myself say to the phone, but my eyes didn’t budge from the rectangle of sky framed by the window.|
“I said,” said my boss, president Tom Gilmore, “ ‘Can you give us an update on the Autumn Weekend?’ ”
“Oh,” I intoned, buying time while my mind did its best to separate itself from the spectacle unfolding outdoors and refocus on New Jersey Audubon business.
“Are you looking at all these robins?” I whispered to colleague and vice president for education Dale Rosselet, who nodded to her reflection in the window. Like me, she was transfixed by the spectacle.
“What?” Tom invited. “We didn’t catch that.”
“I said, ‘Sure. Yeah, the convention center’s coming along nicely,’ but...
“Hey, listen, you guys: We’re a bit distracted at the moment. You are simply not going to believe the avalanche of robins that is flying past the Center for Research and Education right now. We’re talking about thousands and thousands of birds here.”
Not many conference calls get put on hold by roost-bound robins, and not many organizations would tolerate such a digression. But New Jersey Audubon is one such organization, and this conference call was destined for digression.
The bird you think you know
I’m willing to bet that you and every other reader are familiar with American Robin, North America’s best-known bird. With its slate-gray back and rust-red breast, the burly thrush is the signature bird of suburbia and, in this habitat, is only slightly less regular than mailboxes.
You probably grew up hearing American Robins pour their song through your open bedroom window. When you were told that the early bird catches the worm, did you think of any species other than this one?
Tree crotches and porch overhangs seem tailor-made for the bird’s nest. Springs are never official until American Robin comes striding across the lawn. And is there a spawn of suburbia that did not, at some point, come home with a baby robin nestled in cupped hands?
I sure did. More than once.
Chipper, my first “orphaned” robin, was killed after ingesting worms left outside when the DDT fogging truck went by. I wrote to the mayor and told him to stop the spraying because it killed birds, but, of course, he didn’t listen and the spraying continued. Three years later, in 1962, a heroic biologist named Rachel Carson told the world about the danger of DDT in a book called Silent Spring. People didn’t listen to her, either.
Nibs, my second robin, made it to full term. After fledging, he’d come by for handouts. In the spirit of “D. Boon killed a bar on this tree,” I carved Nib’s history into the bark of an obliging beech tree. I’ll bet it’s still there.
So my personal bond with American Robin is enduring. It also maps the course of my life with birds.
Life with robins
The first year I counted hawks in Cape May, I was treated to one of those extraordinary migratory surges that Cape May is famous for. The memory of that day in late October is precise but painful.
The weather report said rain. The northwest winds buffeting my window said, “Cold front came through early. Get your butt out to the hawk watch now!”
It was dawn. I was late, but I couldn’t rush. Sunset Boulevard was simply paved in robins, thousands of birds driven to ground by the weather.
I drove at a crawl. Several times I was forced to a stop. Despite my best efforts, I still heard the teeth-clenching sound of birds getting up and striking the bottom of my VW bug.
I kept my eyes on the road ahead. I couldn’t bring myself to look in the rear-view mirror.
This may have been the greatest “grounding” of robins I ever witnessed. But another Cape May flight, 20 years later, was estimated at more than one and a half million birds.
That was one heck of a flight. But the official numbers don’t do it justice. The fact is, the migratory push began at 10 o’clock the evening before. The count started at dawn. That one and a half million doesn’t include the flood of birds that had passed in the hours of darkness.
In my travels I’ve seen robins in many odd places and evidence of robins in even stranger places. Years ago, while working on the book Arctic Autumn: A Journey to Season’s Edge (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), wife Linda and I camped at an old Distant Early Warning Line radar site named Lonely. Lonely is about 60 miles southeast of Barrow, Alaska.
Just west of Lonely was an abandoned whaling station. I hiked over to take a look and discovered splintered coffins and human remains and, inside a sod outhouse, an American Robin’s nest.
There wasn’t a tree (much less a mailbox) within 50 miles. Nevertheless, not one but two intrepid robins had made it to the Beaufort Sea and were resourceful enough to locate an eave to fit a nest.
So if you ever want to know why so many robins are in North America, consider that the birds seem capable of breeding as far north as they can find a stand of willows or a right angle. Some of the birds flying past the Center for Research and Education might well derive from such pioneering stock.
South Jersey has always been a winter stronghold for robins. The birds roost in the stands of white cedar and in phragmites. At dawn they head out to forage on the holly berries that flourish here.
Did I say phragmites? Yes. Just like swallows, Purple Martins, and assorted icterids, robins choose to roost in dense stands of the much-maligned plant.
But this past year, owing to mild temperatures, more and more robins were ignoring berries and foraging, instead, upon pastures, golf courses, and lawns. The earth was unfrozen, earthworms close to the surface.
So where in past years the hosts of wintering robins went from holly forest to phragmites, this year the birds were fanning out across South Jersey. People were calling all winter to announce that the robins had returned.
“No,” we assured them, “they arrived last October and never left.” But it was still left to us to try and quantify the mass of winter birds because... well, it’s just what bird observatories do.
So two nights later, there we were, standing on the second-floor observation deck of the Center for Research and Education, Dale and I. Metal hand counters in hand. Doing our best to do justice to the flood of birds that was streaming north.
We counted for an hour, from half an hour before sunset till dusk, when the lack of light defeated our efforts. The tally?
One hundred and six thousand robins, about three times the autumn hawk-watch total for Cape May Point and equal to the best single-day count of seabirds at the Avalon Seawatch. And I hasten to point out that the robins passing the observatory are only a fraction of the birds wintering in the three counties at New Jersey’s southern tip. That total must be in the millions.
Amazing, isn’t it? You spend your life thinking you’re familiar with something and then one day you realize that the obvious is moving past your door. What a wonder. What a marvel. What a bird!
So if you’ve ever wondered where the robins that nest in your yard go in the winter, the answer is...
I don’t know. But I can tell you where you might want to begin your search.
Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and the author of
Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season (2009);
Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006);
Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year (1999); and other books about birds and birdwatching.
Read more by Pete Dunne.