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Harbinger of spring – Worms not Robins

The endearing American robin, also known as the “Harbinger of Spring.”  The notion goes so far back in my memory.   I fail to recognize the first time I became aware of the robin and its notoriety for marshalling in the welcomed, new spring season, which begins for me at the beginning of March.  We see robins all year long at our house.  So I began to wonder why robin earned such a dramatic reputation.

Consulting my Peterson’s, I quickly verified my assessment:  the American robin lives in the Blackstone Valley all year.  It winters here, breeds here and generally thrives here (and throughout most of the continental U.S.).  It is one specie that has benefited from the interaction of humans with the landscape.

Robins like short grass or bare ground as foraging areas for earthworms and arthropods.  They build their nests in trees or shrubs located near these preferable feeding areas. Despite resident predators like cats and raccoons or the occasional fisher cat, virtually any lawn area in the National Heritage Corridor is attractive to the robins.

The National Heritage Corridor also has the one other essential element for robins:  a supply of mud for nests.  The birds use a base of twigs, roots, grass and paper firmly molded into shape with an inner layer of mud.  While some may be built in conifers before leaves come out on other trees each spring, the nests are often relocated to deciduous trees and shrubs for cover the rest of the season.

Everyone is familiar with the startlingly beautiful blue eggs of the robin, usually laid in a group of six to eight.  They incubate for two weeks and hatch.  The resulting brood is watched by Mom, fed by Dad, and are off flying on their own in another two weeks.  Robins can produce two or three broods per season.

Distinguished by a bright orange-red breast, the American robin (Turdus migratorius) is a large thrush and one of the most familiar songbirds in the eastern United States.  It was named by early settlers because of its resemblance to the European robin, a somewhat smaller-sized thrush called Erithacus rubecula.

But let’s return to the question of “harbinger of spring.”  Where did that come from, if, in fact, the robins live in the National Heritage Corridor year round?

It’s the worms.  From March to May, earthworms (and other lawn “bugs”) constitute a major portion of the diet of robins, apparently because these foods are essential for breeding.  It’s easier to find the worms, et al, in shorter grass.  Hence, the preference for lawns.  Each spring, it seems like the robins have “returned” to our yards from who-knows-where, as they collect in numbers on our lawns and peck for worms.  The fact is they have just flown over from the tree next door looking for the season’s first crop of worms, as the wrigglers thaw themselves out and rise closer to the surface to do whatever it is worms do.

By June, robins begin to supplement their diet with fruit (such as honeysuckle) and the fruit takes on a larger portion of their food supply right through the fall.

So the next time you look out your window and see these birds in the yard, resist reinforcing the old falsehood by saying, “spring must be here, there are robins in the yard.”  It would be more accurate to say, “spring is here, the worms surfacing.”