A Bob-Bob Bobbin’ Springtime Delight
By Paula Musto
Growing up, I knew little about the habits of wild birds, but like many youngsters I could recite the lyrics to this ditty regarded by many as the signature song of spring. We knew when you spotted a robin that winter was finally over! The red-breasted songbirds, it seemed, disappeared for the winter, probably to warmer climes, and then showed up in your backyard about the same time as the Easter Bunny.
But these quintessential early birds most likely never traveled very far. Although some American Robins migrate, many, including species in WNC, remain in the same place year-round. You just don’t see them bobbin’ along solo, stalking earthworms on your lawn.
“On my daily walks in North Asheville during the winter, it is not uncommon for me to happen across a 50-plus flock of robins,” says Tom Tribble, past president of the Blue Ridge Chapter of the National Audubon Society. “Come spring, however, their behavior changes.”
During the winter, he says, robins gather in large flocks, comprised of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of birds, appearing in areas where they can feed. Robins are not seed eaters so they will not show up at your bird feeder, and earthworms are scarce when the ground grows cold. To view them in wintertime look up in treetops and high bushes. Their winter diet consists of fruits like crabapples, hawthorns, holly and juniper. Roaming flocks appear where these fruits are plentiful.
But when spring rolls around, the birds split up and we begin to see robins in our yards. It’s easy to assume they have returned from migration, but what we are seeing is simply a switch in behavior, Tribble says. Rather than the camaraderie of the flock, the robins now become territorial, aggressively defending their chosen terrain in advance of courting and raising their babies.
Since robins sing frequently, you can find them by listening for their clear, lilting musical whistles. While both males and females sing in autumn, males are the most vocal during spring when they begin to sing before sunrise, announcing their whereabouts to potential mates and warding off competing suitors. The birds belt out their tunes while performing other courting protocols: fluttering wings, fluffing tail feathers and puffing out their striped throats to entice the ladies.
As a woodland edge species, robins have always lived near humans and are well adapted to urban life, making them one of the easiest birds to identify and observe. Even novice birdwatchers can spot them hopping in their backyards and in neighborhood parks, or view them nesting in trees and windowsills.
Unlike many species of birds, the American Robin population is relatively healthy standing at more than 300 million. But the Audubon Society reports that like all wildlife, the species has been affected by urbanization. Light and noise pollution are reportedly making city robins sing songs long before dawn and the melodies are becoming more high-pitched to compete with the sound of traffic.
Casey First, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in North Asheville, says observing songbirds is an excellent way to get started birdwatching. Interest in birding has grown exponentially in recent years, he says, now ranking as one of the most popular hobbies in the world. “People have always had a curiosity about the natural world around them, but as we continue to move out of rural areas and into city centers, they miss being out in nature,” First says. “Birding is a great way to renew our connection with nature.”
Many young people, he says, became interested in birding during the pandemic lockdown as something they could do solo outdoors. And for aging Baby Boomers, birdwatching is a relaxing hobby that doesn’t require a big investment in time or money.
To get started, you only need a feeder—although binoculars are helpful. First suggests that in addition to birding books there are a number of user-friendly, smart-phone apps that will help identify birds by sight and sound, like the free eBird app. The Audubon Society or The Cornell Lab of Ornithology are great resources for materials.
“Birdwatching is slow and meditative,” says First, who originally became involved in birdwatching as a business venture, but soon became a passionate hobbyist. He now compares birdwatching to fishing. “You just never know what is going to show up.”
Maybe they never went all that far away, but you can almost always count on a robin or two showing up in your yard this time of year.
Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to help injured or orphaned wildlife, support WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and provide wildlife conservation education. To help save wildlife, donate and learn more, visit AppalachianWild.org.