How to help robins through the winter in your yard and garden

Last Updated: 
October 31, 2008

robin in snow photo © Tony Campbell; iStockphoto

CORVALLIS - Most people take the American robin, Turdus migratorius, for granted as it is one of the most well known birds in Oregon. But according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the robin has declined in Oregon over the past few decades, at a rate of about 1.5 percent per year.

The reasons for this decline are unknown, according to "The Birds of Oregon," published by Oregon State University Press.

Robins seen in the winter months in Oregon may either be year-round residents or migrants, coming down from the north to spend the winter here. Though robins seem ubiquitous, they are most abundant in northwestern Oregon.

OSU Extension Service 4-H wildlife stewards and OSU wildlife students are encouraging Oregonians to learn more about these underappreciated native birds. Students in the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife have developed the following information to help Oregonians foster robins in their yards and gardens.

Home gardeners can plant some of their favorite food sources. Trees and shrubs that provide fruits such as Indian plum, thimbleberry, bitter cherry, huckleberry, and Oregon grape are good choices.

Planting trees and shrubs that provide cover is important. Some good choices are vine maple, currant, ocean spray, and California wax myrtle.

If you'd like to attract robins at bird feeders, feed them chopped apples, berries and mealworms. They don't eat birdseed. They prefer to forage for their food in lawns and open areas.

Providing water is important for robins because they like to drink and bathe regularly. A shallow pond with a muddy area is ideal since robins use mud for nest building. Birdbaths with misters and drippers will also appeal to these birds.

Nest platforms offer robins a place to build a nest. Plans for platforms can be found in books or on the Internet. A good example can be found at http://www.learner.org/jnorth/images/graphics/n-r/robin_nestbox.gif

Robins have many predators. Domestic and feral (wild) cats kill many robins each year. Young robins are especially vulnerable when they are learning to fly because they are on the ground. Crows, jays, owls, and hawks prey on baby robins.

Most robins spend much time in bushes and trees where they hide from predators, rest, raise their young, and find protection from the weather. They use dense evergreen trees and shrubs, dead trees or snags, and nesting boxes. Suburban areas with a mixture of lawns, flowerbeds, gardens, shrubs, and trees make excellent robin habitat.

Pesticides, or chemicals put on the land, can kill or harm robins. Pesticides also may kill worms and insects, a major food source for robins. The robins are affected when they eat the poisoned worms or berries. We can help keep robins safe by keeping cats indoors, setting out nest platforms, and by not using chemicals on our lawns and plants.

Robins help control insect populations. They also are very important for spreading seeds and for the growth of new trees and bushes in new areas. The fruit they eat contains seeds, which robins may drop in other places.

The breeding season for robins is from April through July. When the female finds a partner, she begins to build a nest with the male's help. The nest is cup-shaped and made from grasses or small twigs mixed with small amounts of mud. She works the mud into place with her feet and bill, molds it with her body, and lines the nest with fine grass.

Nests usually are located 10 to 20 feet high in a tree or occasionally may be found in bushes or on the ground. The female also may use a level human-made structure such as a window ledge or platform as her nest site.

One of the first birds to begin laying eggs in the spring, robins lay their first clutch or group of eggs around late April or early May. The female generally lays four light blue eggs, which she incubates (sits on) until they are ready to hatch after about 12 to 14 days.

The young are born without feathers and with their eyes closed. Their parents feed them insects until they are ready to fledge or leave the nest when they are 14 to 16 days old.

Baby robins cannot fly for the first few days after they leave the nest. Their parents lead them to low shrubs and trees where they first learn to climb and jump. Within a day or two, their wings grow stronger and they begin to take short flights. Their parents continue to feed them, and within a week or two, they are ready to be on their own. When the young are strong enough, the robins may roost in big groups.

Nesting up to three times each year, male robins may watch over the fledging young, while the female incubates the next clutch of eggs.

For more information, consult OSU Extension's 4-H publication "American Robin." (EC 1568)

Author: Carol Savonen
Source: Nancy Allen