Some Robins Can Be Sunbirds…Sort of

We always thought of Robins as birds who are the harbingers of spring. On the other hand, we’ve seen Robins in the middle of winter. We saw them today.

I realize that you technically can’t call a Robin a Sunbird. There is a species of Sunbird. It’s a small tropical forest bird. And you could call a person who travels from hot, humid parts of the country to cooler parts a sunbird—sort of the opposite of snowbirds; those who migrate from the cold north to the warm south in the winter months.

And so, I think you could call the Robin a sunbird—sort of. They’ll stick around all winter as long as the berries hold out.

Go Baby Robins!

We have a robin’s nest in our back yard with 3 nestlings. I can hear Momma robin nearby, nervous about me and my camera. I’m careful not to disturb them too much, not to stay too long. I hope they make it. I hope for a lot of things like civility, peace, love, acceptance. It should be alright to hope for this one little thing extra—that baby robins grow up.

Music credit:

Midsummer Sky by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.



Mother’s Day for a Robin

Happy Mother’s Day! The blog post for today is a little unusual because it’s about a “mother” robin who built a nest on April 9, 2019 and is still sitting on it as of today. It’s unusual because she’s been sitting on the nest for at least a couple of weeks now even though there have been no eggs in it. We can’t figure why she’s sitting on an empty nest.

Things got started relatively well. In fact, after building the usual sloppy nest, the mother robin laid two eggs in it. That was the largest number of eggs we ever saw. The number went down from two eggs to one to none over a couple of days or so.

“And then there were none.” I never read Agatha Christie’s book by the same name or saw the TV miniseries on which it was based several years ago. On the other hand, death played a role—a natural one—in the case of the very devoted mother robin.

The robins built their nest in an evergreen tree right below one of our windows. What was nice about that was that I never had to creep up on them, see them thunder out of the tree, mess with the branches around the nest, snap photos—and leave a scent trail for large predatory birds.

Now, speaking of predatory birds…I never saw any of them this time. I know last year I heard a heavy flapping noise (like bedsheets on a clothesline) outside of my office window and opened the blinds just in time to see a huge crow or turkey vulture take off from our front yard tree. Its beak was full of house finch nestlings. I swore I would never again engage in monitoring bird nests in that way.

This time there was only circumstantial evidence of nest robbery. My wife saw broken egg shells on the ground under the tree but it’s not clear exactly when she saw that.

But mother robin still sits on the nest. I have not been able to find any information about this behavior in nesting birds.

It’s not that birds never display odd nesting behavior. One of E.B. White’s essays, “Mr. Forbush’s Friends,” published in the Essays of E.B. White (White, E. B. (1977). Essays of E.B. White. New York [etc.: Harper and Row), describes a great number of these peculiar behaviors. One quote: “Had pair of Carolina wrens build nest in basket containing sticks of dynamite. No untoward results.”

I did wonder why our mother robin built a nest so visible from the sky. That was as bad as building a nest in a basket of dynamite. I know we have a tendency to anthropomorphize animal behavior, but I’m having trouble explaining this mother robin’s persistence in sitting on an empty nest. There are no new eggs; yet she acts as if eggs are there. Is she grieving? Is she hallucinating? How long will this go on?

Maybe some of you know what this is all about and I welcome your comments. Until then, it looks like for this robin, Mother’s Day is endless.

Cardinals vs Robins?

I’m not sure what to think about our cardinals. We saw the egg cache go from two to three—than back to two in the same day. No kidding, the nest gained a third egg in the morning and lost it in the afternoon.

I looked all over the ground and couldn’t find it. Before that, I was hunting around the web trying to learn more about cardinals and discovered that robins and cardinals will sometimes lay their eggs in the same nest. It’s not always clear why this happens, maybe competition or mutualism. Maybe they’re just swingers.

There was an article published about nest-sharing between cardinals and robins several years ago, published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology. The authors observed cardinals and robins sharing a nest with mixed eggs in Polk County, Iowa of all places. Iowa is a happening place. Both species incubated the eggs; however, only the robins fledged.

“Govoni, P. W., et al. (2009). Nest Sharing Between an American Robin and a Northern Cardinal, BIOONE.

           Mixed-clutch nest sharing was observed between an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) and a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) in Saylor Township, Polk County, Iowa in May 2007. The nest contained three American Robin eggs and two Northern Cardinal eggs, but only American Robin young were fledged successfully. This was not a case of brood parasitism, as both females were observed alternating incubation of the nest. Competition for desirable nest sites might be a possible cause for this type of interspecific behavior.”

Others speculate that robins will eat cardinal young. I’m not so sure about that. Based on what little I found on the web about it, it’s controversial whether robins actually raid cardinal nests to eat the eggs. They rarely will eat shrews and small snakes. Like me, they hate coconut. They eat a lot of chokecherries, often after they’ve fermented into wine, on which they get pretty drunk and could play pranks on cardinals (“Hey, let’s go cardinal-tipping and steal some eggs!”).They sure like worms and follow my wife around as she waters the lawn, snacking on them as they emerge from their flooded tunnels, gasping and frantically hunting for their flood insurance policies. They also ham it up for the camera.

Robin hamming it up and probably three sheets to the wind.

My wife has spied a robin or two flying around the back yard. It raises questions about competition because robins nested and raised a brood last year in the same tree and in the exact same spot where the cardinals are settled this year.

It’s hardly prime real estate in my opinion. We’re always out in the back yard, making noise and flinging water and grass clippings. And we’re continually nosing around the nests, which makes the adult birds pretty nervous and fussy, putting up Do Not Trespass signs and privacy fences.

If robins ate the third egg, they had excellent table manners. There’s no trace of shell or yolk anywhere. I wondered if the cardinal had carried off one of the eggs out of impatience with our continual spying on their nest. But how? The eggs look too big for a bird’s beak. Can they carry it in their feet? Or do they own luggage?

And where would they take it? I supposed it’s possible they could be taking it to another nest they previously built—but it would be occupied by a previous brood. Cardinals nest more than once a season; the male feeds the young while the female builds another one, according to Birds of Iowa Field Guide by Stan Tekiela (2000).

I have no idea what’s going on with these birds. I’ll keep you posted as the situation develops.

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