American robin one of first songbirds to return to Comox Valley in the spring

One of the first songbirds to arrive back in our local area from their winter migration is the American robin.

YOU MIGHT SPOT a baby robin like this one that appears to have been abandoned by its mother. Chances are

YOU MIGHT SPOT a baby robin like this one that appears to have been abandoned by its mother. Chances are

One of the first songbirds to arrive back in our local area from their winter migration is the American robin.

The largest members of the thrush family, robins are probably the one species that everyone recognizes. Adult plumage is unmistakable, especially the breeding males with their brilliant rufous-cinnamon breasts, dark grey heads and wings and dark beady eyes outlined in white. The females are similar to the males’ coloration but are duller than the vibrant males; juveniles have speckled breasts.

Robins have longer beaks than most songbirds; their beaks are designed for pulling and probing, necessary to pull earthworms from the ground. It is fun to watch a robin locate the worm by sight and sound and then begin the tug-of-war; often they will use their wings to retain their balance while pulling out a reluctant worm.

Robins also have strong, sturdy legs enabling them to run and hop along the ground.

These birds are one of the first birds to start the dawn chorus and one of the last to stop singing at dusk. They have a large repertoire of songs, some melodious, others raucous alarm calls if their nest or territory is threatened by an intruder.

Found throughout North America, robins were originally forest dwellers but have gradually adapted to a variety of habitats, including urban areas where they thrive in parks, golf courses, open spaces and back yards.

Earthworms are the robins’ favourite food choice, but they supplement their diet with seasonal fruits and berries and the young are fed earthworms and insects while in the nest. An expandable esophagus (throat) enables them to collect and store large quantities of worms that they can transport back to the nest for the young or keep in reserve to sustain them through the night.

Robins also take the honours in producing the first babies, and MARS has already received the first baby robin for this year.

Females construct a cup-shaped nest from dry grasses, small twigs, horse hair, plastic scraps or anything that takes their fancy. These well-designed nests take six days to construct with more than 150 trips a day to collect materials. The final touch to the nest is a custom-made lining of mud mixed with saliva that the female transports in her mouth; while the mud is still damp, she will sit in the nest moulding the mud to fit her body, ensuring a tight-fitting, safe nest for the young.

On average, six eggs are produced, and robins will often produce two clutches in one season. Incubation of the eggs takes between 12 and 14 days, and a further 12 to 14 days for hatchlings to fledge from the nest. Hatchlings are naked and blind and totally dependent on the mother for food, warmth and protection. Baby robins are very comical and all compete with each other for food. It definitely is an advantage to have the largest yellow gaping mouth to ensure you are fed first; often the last to hatch will be overlooked and in many cases do not survive.

Fledging, or leaving the nest, is a natural process and often the time as well when humans intervene, thinking the young have fallen out of the nest. As soon as the young have the strength to flap and attempt to fly, they will jump, glide or fall from the nest, and it takes them a few more days until they achieve “lift-off.” At this time, the parents teach them how to hunt for food, but will continue to feed them on the ground; even when they master flight, you can see them begging for food with quivering wings.

It is critical that they be left alone to learn these skills with their parents, though many times young robins have been kidnapped and brought to the centre. Be sure to watch for the parents from a distance before assuming they are orphaned. If you think a nest has been abandoned, call us before intervening; and if you find a baby that is still naked and blind, it can be replaced into the nest if you can locate it.

Other baby bird and waterfowl will be arriving any day, and the MARS centre also has its first six ducklings. These babies are very labour-intense for the centre, needing initial feedings every 15 to 20 minutes throughout the day! With our increased demand for worms, we encourage families and school classes to harvest worms for us. If you are interested, call the centre or visit the website for more information.

We welcome our first intern students for this season. They provide an invaluable service to us during the busy spring and summer months, and in return, learn firsthand whether or not their careers will involve wildlife or veterinarian studies.

For more information on what to do if you find a baby bird, raccoon, deer, or any other species, check www.wingtips.org or call 250-337-2021.

To report injured or orphaned wildlife, call our toll-free pager at 1-800-304-9968.

The MARS open house will be May 29 from 3 to 5 p.m.

Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Friday.