For centuries, from coast to coast, in cities and suburbs, fields and forests, the American Robin has established nests in every contiguous state and filled the ears of many an American with their cheerful song. The rusty red breast adorning male robins have captured the imagination — how did it come to be such a color? One European legend holds that as Jesus was crucified, a robin flew down and tried to pull the crown of thorns from his head, becoming splattered by the blood of his wounds in the process.
Indigenous tales associate the red coloring with fire, with stories of robins protecting people from cold by keeping a flame burning in their heart, or acting as guardians of fire. Robins are the most abundant bird in the country, yet despite their ubiquitous existence, they still fascinate and inspire.
Being the original “early bird,” robins get their start at the first rays of morning light and don’t clock out until a hazy sunset adorns the sky. While worms are thought to be a staple of robin diets (and indeed the average robin will consume 14 feet of wriggling pink invertebrates per day), insects make up about 40 percent of the robin diet; the rest being supplemented by berries and fruit. In fact, robins are one of the few animals to be observed deliberately intoxicating themselves from eating poisonous or fermented berries. Honeysuckle berries are a preferred substance for the robin to enjoy after a long hard day of singing and scavenging, resulting in rocking and lopsided perching with half-shut eyes.
When spring approaches, robins put away the booze and get down to the business of getting busy. The northern migration is no small undertaking: robins have been recorded traveling upwards of 3,000 miles to colder pastures in Alaska and Canada. Once a mate has been chose for the season, the female will begin construction of the nest while the male will defend nesting territory by… singing. Yes, rather than brandish talons or beaks (though such scuffles aren’t unheard of), robins prefer to settle their disputes with a tune. Sort of like American Idol, but for bird nests. Robins average four pale blue eggs per brood, and typically produce two broods per season, sometimes three. That iconic pale blue color that has adorned many a baby nursery is the result of the bile pigment, biliverdin, in the mother’s shell gland.
Biliverdin isn’t exclusive to robins, it also lends blue hues to the eggs of blue jays, house finches, and song thrushes, and it’s the reason bruises on our bodies turn a purple-blue color while healing. To the dismay of many a would-be robin parent, only 40 percent of robin nests are successful in hatching chicks. Of that percentage, about one quarter manage to survive until November, and from then on robins have a 50-50 chance of making it to the next year. The entire robin population turns over every six years, as most don’t live past the age of two, but it is possible for them to reach 14 years of age, as observed in one case.
While many species of birds are confined to specific areas, leaving out the rest of the country from enjoying the splendor of their colors and songs, robins have taken it upon themselves to be neighbors to every class and creed. Whether you work in a skyscraper or a mine, if you go home to an apartment or a cottage, whether you pray to a Father God or a Mother Earth, the robin does not discriminate on who gets to hear his song. We can all hear that chirping call at daybreak, challenging us to seize the day.