From his perch high on a balsam fir near a bog in northern Vermont, far from suburbia and barnyards, an American robin sings as if he owns the place. And, in many ways, he does. Although hardly an icon of the North Woods, the robin is a paragon of versatility – a songbird of north, south, east, and west – covering forested and fragmented habitats across the continent. Few other birds can claim such range. The robin pulls it off with a blend of moxie and manifest destiny.
Food figures big in this story of success. The American robin does not live by earthworm alone. Changing diet with the seasons, the robin tugging worms from your lawn in summer may move to high peaks to feast on mountain ash fruits once snow falls. On the way, he’ll graze on anything from beetles to spiders, from the fruits of poison ivy to the cones of junipers. A study of stomach contents from 1,169 robins featured fruits of 50 genera and invertebrates from more than 100 families.
That kind of diet requires dexterity. A robin hunting earthworms will pause, wait, watch, and adjust its gaze before striking. But robins also run down and nab dashing insects or probe the forest floor by flipping leaves and twigs. On the wing, they can snatch fruits off the vine. On rare occasions, robins have been found to have eaten fish, frog, snake, and skink.
The varied diet helps make robins our most cosmopolitan songbird – from boreal forests in Alaska to dairy farms in New England to shopping malls in Miami. In the fir and hemlock forests of the American and Canadian West, I find robins to be regular nesting birds, perhaps more so than in softwoods here in the East, although research suggests robins prefer early-successional forests. As we cleared and fragmented forests for homes, parks, and commerce, robins followed in our wake. They live in edge habitats that include riparian zones, city parks, and even new settlements in the formerly inhospitable Canadian arctic.
Once they claim turf for breeding, robins tenaciously defend their nests from predators with what seems to be an enhanced version of the songbird arsenal: harassment, gang warfare, and an occasional thrashing. Confronted with a raccoon, squirrel, crow, or hawk at the nest (or even a human wandering too close), robins spring into a dance of agitation: they hop from perch to perch, flick their wings, wag their tails, and blurt emphatic, staccato yeep! and chuck! calls. These antics often draw additional robins and other songbirds into the fray. Lacking talons or hooked beaks, songbirds go for strength in numbers.
Occasionally, robins make at least glancing contact with a predator, usually around the head and neck. One robin was reported to have killed a Steller’s jay by thrashing the jay with its wings and feet and then pecking at – and penetrating – its head.
If that isn’t enough, robins are pushy. When they head south in fall they don’t go too far – some winter as far north as southern Quebec and central Maine. By pushing the northern edge of their winter range, robins (mostly males) linger near the front of the line so that they can be first to claim high-quality territories and the spring buffet of fruits and insects.
With its undiscriminating diet and brash behavior, the American robin is a lot like, well, a lot of other Americans.
Bryan Pfeiffer is an author, wildlife photographer, guide, and consulting naturalist who specializes in birds and insects. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont.