Sunday, July 25, 2021

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The most abundant bird in America may surprise you!

I’ve only found one nest in the yard this year. To be honest, I haven’t looked very hard, not wanting to disturb the nesting birds or to call attention to their location. I couldn’t, however, miss the American Robin’s nest, which is perched rather precariously (to me, at least) on the bracket that sticks out a few inches from under the roof gable. 

In spite of my misgivings about its location, the nest has survived some high winds and heavy rain, and I’ve seen a robin parent feeding the young, the first of up to three broods they may raise this summer. The chicks must have a healthy appetite, because they made short work of—no kidding—the biggest earthworm I’ve ever seen. 

The American Robin is a member of the thrush family, and it is the most abundant bird in North America. According to Partners in Flight, a consortium of organizations that focus on land bird conservation, there were roughly 366 million robins on the continent in 2020; 4.1 million of them were in South Dakota. Although we’re used to seeing just a few at a time, they congregate in roosts that can range from dozens to hundreds or even thousands. All of this was a surprise to me. I would have guessed that the most abundant birds were one of the invasive species, European Starlings or House Sparrows (about 93 million each) which certainly seem to dominate the suburban and urban ecosystems, or the ubiquitous Canada Goose, which at 5 to 7 million, doesn’t even come close—another reminder that we can’t generalize from our limited perspectives. 

In my yard, the robins don’t pay a lot of attention to the feeders, although they do occasionally sample the grape jelly I put out for the Baltimore and Orchard Orioles. The moles seem to leave them plenty of earthworms. Robins can apparently hear the worms under the ground, which explains how they find and snatch them with such great accuracy. Like many birds, robins’ ears are below and behind their eyes. They are covered by cheek feathers, called auriculars, and they aren’t usually visible.

Although robins are, as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls them, the “quintessential early bird”—celebrated in poetry and song as the harbinger of spring—they are actually around all winter. We just don’t see them as much, as their diets change from the worms they pull from suburban lawns and parks and abundant summer insects to fruits and berries—berries that can ferment and cause mild intoxication in the flocks of robins and Cedar Waxwings who sometimes gorge themselves on them. There are occasional reports of birds flying or walking unsteadily or missing the branches they were trying to perch on.

Robins have certainly benefitted from their ability to adapt to the changes humans have made to the landscape, and they are so much a part of our landscape that it’s easy to forget that we’re a small part of theirs. For every robin we see in our towns, there are many more that live far from human habitation. They do very well without us. Let’s hope they continue to thrive. 

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