[Video stream of American robin nest on the side of a building with three nestlings squished inside sleeping. Occasionally they move around or yawn. Birds calling in the background.] 

[Charles] Good morning to our robin cam viewers out there. We’re coming to you live from the Adelson Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We’re actually overlooking the Cornell feeders at Sapsucker Woods and about two hundred feet away from the robin’s nest itself. I’m Charles Eldermire, and I’m super excited today to bring you the opportunity to hear more about robins and nest monitoring from Robyn Bailey. 

Robyn is the project leader for the Cornell Lab’s NestWatch Project. So good morning, Robyn. Thanks so much for making the time to meet with us today. 

[Robyn] Yes, thanks Charles for having me, and thank you to everybody listening in. I’m excited to be here today. 

[Charles] Well, as I said before we’re pretty excited to have you here. You, I think, are going to be fairly new to our cam audience. So I wonder if you might tell them a little bit about your background, and sort of, you know, who you are here at the Lab and what you, what got you here, I guess. 

[Robyn] Yeah, so a little bit about my backstory. So I am the project leader for NestWatch at the Cornell Lab. This is a citizen science project where we encourage people who find a nest, like the robin’s nest, either on your home, or in your yard, or even in your nest box, to report that to the Lab. We’ve been tracking nesting bird success across the country for over 50 years. 

[Charles] Wow. 

[Robyn] So yeah, it’s really exciting and it’s a really interesting long-term project. And I’m a certified wildlife biologist, I have a master’s degree in fisheries and wildlife. So I feel really excited to be able to to use that background to, to study birds, especially common backyard birds that people love. 

And, but an interesting story about me is that I’ve, you know, have come a long way and I got kind of a late start to this whole thing. We were talking a little bit earlier, I shared this story about the very first bird I observed, as a pretty you know grown college person, was the American robin. 

So this was kind of a new experience for me in college, learning bird identification and, and bird study. So the very first thing I looked out onto my college campus in Montgomery, Alabama noticed a, an American Robin hopping along. Like that was my first bird ID so. 

[Charles] That’s a perfect bird given your name too, I think, it’s a fun thing. I think a lot of our viewers will probably relate to the idea of there being sort of a spark, bird, a bird that really catches the imagination and helps you dive in with, you know, full enthusiasm to what the world of birds can offer. 

[Robyn] So that really was a turning point for me. That is exactly the moment that set me on my path towards bird study, and here I am. 

[Charles] That’s awesome, that’s great. So you mentioned a couple things here that I want to delve into a little bit. First I want to give our viewers just a heads up about this talk. We’ll probably cover a little bit about NestWatch, and what it’s like to monitor nests, and and sort of the the interesting things that have gone on with Project NestWatch. 

And we’ll be covering a bunch of questions about robins that people have submitted. We’ll be getting into those, and if you do have any questions during this live chat, if you want to tweet them to us @CornellRobins, you can tweet them to us either directly or with a hashtag RobynTalksRobins. We thought that was really great that we had, you know, somebody who’s an expert on on nesting birds named Robyn here at the Lab that could talk with us about our great robins on cam. 

So you said obviously scientists are monitoring bird nesting, right, but it sounds like with NestWatch, you know, normal people are monitoring it, too. So so how does that work that normal people can, like is that even permitted, you know, for people to interact with birds? 

[Robyn] Yeah [laughs].

[Charles] I can imagine people being a little worried about that.

[Robyn] Yeah, that’s a really great question. So absolutely people are out there every day interacting with birds and monitoring them. Our community of NestWatchers, what they do is they get a special certification process. They go through a little bit of training material through the NestWatch Citizen Science Project, where they learn how to approach a nest, and how to engage with it responsibly. 

So there are certain things that you do or do not do around a bird’s nest. And so, you know, you mentioned permits. You don’t handle birds without a permit. So for NestWatch you just simply glance into a nest or a nest box, and report what you see, but we don’t touch or interfere, we, you know, let nature take its course. And yeah people have been reporting nests to us from all over the country for a really long time, and you know so far it’s worked out really well for science and for the people who are learning firsthand about the birds. 

[Charles] So do people just call you up on the phone 

[Robyn] [Laughs] 

[Charles] and tell you what they’re seeing? Should we put your number, your phone number in a crawl across the bottom of the screen? 

[Robyn] [Laughs] 

[Charles] Is that the best way to get that information to you? 

[Robyn] People certainly call with their questions 

[Charles] [Laughs] 

[Robyn] Um, but for data submission that definitely happens online, otherwise all I would do would be to take notes all day long.

[Charles] Yeah. 

[Robyn] We have a great website for data entry called NestWatch.org. And we just recently developed a mobile app, so you can take your phone, and download the NestWatch app, and report from wherever you happen to be.

[Charles] Oh, that’s cool. Like you’ve gotta check in, like a nest box on your property or something like that. Um you know one good thing is that I would have thought that you know the birds that we’re talking about here like these robins, you know, is it, are these birds actually even interesting to NestWatch? You know so this common bird that’s nesting almost everywhere, seems like, you know 

[Robyn] Mmhmm. 

[Charles] Certainly like physically everywhere from the forest to, you know, overhangs and doorways and things like that. Um so I’m surprised we don’t already kind of know everything that we might want to know about them. So what, what sorts of things are we learning from these, you know, regular birds? Why are they important? 

[Robyn] Yeah, regular old common birds are actually what we really encourage people to monitor because that is where we get data for an entire species across its entire breeding range. So we’re not just interested in a specific rare species that only breeds in one location.

That’s interesting, but it’s hard to engage a lot of people to study those birds.

[Charles] Sure.

[Robyn] So what we really want to know are how are robins doing across the whole range? How do they differ from north to south and from east to west? Because they really are in all 50 states 

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] and in Canada and Mexico as well. So we’re really wanting to see how they’re doing across the entire breeding range. 

[Charles] So given that you’re studying all these birds, and one thing that I think is interesting, and I know this, this is sort of a setup question because I know a little about it here. But you mentioned that people can enter their data online, but that you’ve been getting data for like 60 years 

[Robyn] Mmhmm. 

[Charles] or something. So how did, how is it you have a treasure trove of data going back that long given that the internet’s only existed since you know, 1999 

[Robyn] [Laughs] 

[Charles] or whatever? Right? Well 

[Robyn] Yeah.

[Charles] how’s that work that you guys have such a rich history? 

[Robyn] Yeah, so originally um people would actually submit these paper index cards. It was called the Cornell, or the North American Nest Record Card Program, offered by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which was really a mouthful.

[Charles] Mouthful, I’d say.

[Robyn] And the acronym wasn’t very good, so. 

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] Over the years that’s changed, but I, we have filing cabinets and huge archives of all these handwritten cards that people filled out. And there have been lots of studies that were done mining the data from those cards submitted by, you know, bird enthusiasts 

[Adult robin flies to nest and feeds nestling, then waits for nestling to defecate and consumes two fecal sacs. Adult settles in nest.] 

and so those have been used in their day just to explore the, some of the early stuff that was known about robins, like when did they lay eggs? And where do they start incubation in the east versus the west? 

[Charles] Uh-huh. 

[Robyn] So lots of cool information has come out of that. And now of course everything is digital. So that really makes this process of doing the science a lot more rapid. 

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] So we can, you know, at the end of the year I can analyze all of the robins’ success from around the different regions, and see how they did. 

[Charles] That’s awesome. 

[Robyn] Put it in a report, and it’s really facilitated the data analysis [laughs].

[Charles] Compared to like picking through cards, I can only imagine. 

[Robyn] Definitely. 

[Charles] Um, so you know, not just in robins but in all these birds that are being monitored, can you point to anything you feel like has been learned that um couldn’t have been learned without it? Whether it’s sort of broad, general things or neat, specific stories that you know have happened for monitoring birds in this way? 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] You know, anything like that that you’d like to share with the audience? 

[Robyn] Yeah, so maybe I’ll start with a few kind of specific anecdotes about things that we have learned about robins, and then I’ll talk about some of the the bigger picture issues. 

So, you know, you mentioned robins are so common is there anything left to learn about them? And yet we still see citizens discovering new and interesting things all the time. So you know in the past, citizens have reported robins nesting in the autumn and winter. 

[Charles] Wow. 

[Robyn] So we get a couple of reports of that each year, and so that’s something that I think is really interesting.

[Charles] Is that usually in the south or? 

[Robyn] Um, it varies, yeah.

[Charles] Wow.

[Robyn] Different places, um but yes and whether or not you know that’s a trend or just a couple of isolated incidences we don’t really know. But so robins are doing that, and they’re sometimes nesting in really strange habitat types so 

[Charles] Hmmm.

[Robyn] we have a population in the Boston area that’s nesting in Phragmites, which is a giant reed that is not often used by robins at all. 

[Charles] Huh.

[Robyn] So there are these kinda specific things where individuals are certainly picking up on novelties and discoveries.

[Charles] Uh-huh.

[Robyn] And we’ve noticed that with other birds too, juncos, bluebirds. Citizens are discovering things about very common birds and reporting it. And so we help them bring, you know, those discoveries to the rest of the bird loving world.

[Charles] That’s great.

[Robyn] Um and then with respect to the the bigger picture, what we’re really trying to look at, and some folks have examined this with robins, are there changes in time? So there have been these really great 30 year studies where they’re looking at changes in the timing of robins’ nesting as it relates to climate change. And so far it you know they don’t seem to have started any earlier 

[Charles] Huh.

[Robyn] or any later, so that’s, maybe that’s a good thing? We don’t really know yet 

[Charles] Right.

[Robyn] where that’s going, but it seems like they’ve, they’re pretty robust. 

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] So.

[Charles] They’re a great big bird.

[Robyn] They’re a big bird [laughs]. 

[Charles] That’s often why, that’s often why they’re a first bird for many people. 

[Robyn] Right.

[Charles] They’re in their backyard, and they’re big enough to see without binoculars, and they look so striking.

[Robyn] Yeah, so maybe that dietary diversity is really going 

[Adult robin flies off the nest and out of view.] 

to pay off for them and. 

[Charles] Yeah. So is that same pattern not being seen in other birds, then? So the robins don’t seem to have been affected over the last thirty years, but do you guys have data that, for other species that are different? 

[Robyn] Yeah so, so to compare that with another species, the tree swallow 

[Charles] Mmhmm.

[Robyn] which is a long-distance migrant and eats only flying insects. We have seen a shift in when they start their timing of their nesting cycle. And it’s, it’s getting earlier over the last 30 or to 40 years.

[Charles] Wow.

[Robyn] So a really specialist on those flying insects is dependent on its food to be available and 

[Charles] Right.

[Robyn] has to time its nest around when those resources are going to be most abundant.

[Charles] Yeah, and as these late season snowstorms, as we’ve had a couple here, it’s just gosh, who knows what’s going on with the weather sometimes. That’s really interesting though that robins are, seem to be so far not showing any pattern that is affecting some of these more migratory species. 

And we have a couple questions about um robins in the winter that I’m gonna hold till later so 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] we can stay focused on NestWatch for now. Um you had, you had mentioned there being a nest monitoring like certification 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] and that probably part of that is learning a lot about how to net, monitor nests 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] I would imagine, right? Um do you want to maybe spend a little bit of time talking about what it’s like to go out and be a NestWatcher so that, some, you know, viewers who are maybe, who’ve never even found a nest, or have been very careful to not disturb a nest might understand why these techniques work, and why why citizens like themselves you know might consider getting involved? 

[Robyn] Yeah, yeah, that’s um an interesting place to start. I would say that probably a good thing to start overall by saying is that NestWatchers are a community of people who care about birds. And they’re always going to put the birds’ best interest at the center of what they’re doing. 

So we don’t NestWatch, you know, without that sense of responsibility. So it’s just kind of embedded in the program.

[Charles] Sure.

[Robyn] And you’ll hear those messages from us repeatedly. But your first experience as a NestWatcher will probably be through a website or a Facebook page or downloading the app, and regardless of how you enter the project you’re going to, you’re going to see that we have a code of conduct. And it’s, those are the dos and don’ts 

[Charles] Right.

[Robyn] of nest checking. And so you’re gonna see that, and the certification process, it sounds like it might be hard, but it’s really just reading through that, um taking a little fun quiz to, and you know, it’s it’s ten questions, and it’s fairly easy. 

Just saying I understand I’m not supposed to 

[Charles] Right.

[Robyn] to 

[Charles] It’s reinforcing. 

[Robyn] [Laughs] touch. Yeah. Don’t go during really bad weather if it’s raining, and you know bad outside, you know, don’t check the nest, and don’t bother them at night when they’re sleeping. 

I mean they’re really obvious, straightforward things that maybe need to be reinforced if you’re totally new to birds, but once you learn them it’ll make complete sense to you.

[Charles] Sure.

[Robyn] So you’ll start like getting indoctrinated into the community of NestWatchers, and um, then you’ll find a nest. The next thing to do is to simply find a nest, whether it’s in your yard, or if you want to go out to a campus, you know your school yard, that’s that’s a great place to find a nest.

Um birds tend to nest around where people are so, we often think that they don’t, but they really are nesting all around us whether we see them or not, so, yeah. 

[Charles] So, so, so, are there um, you know, it sounds like we’re talking a lot about sort of natural, wild nests, right? 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] But I also know that your website has a whole big section on nest boxes, or building homes to try and attract birds 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] to places too. So I don’t know if you wanted to touch on at all like what kinds of birds you might be able to attract? 

[Robyn] Yeah.

[Charles] Or or what what that’s part of your site offers, like that kind of a, so people know they, maybe it’s a resource they could use.

[Robyn] Yeah, so that’s um, if you’re exploring around on NestWatch.org you’ll run into a section of our website called All About Birdhouses where we try to point people towards scientifically defensible nest box plans that are appropriate for those species, that are safe, they’re going to keep the nestlings dry and comfortable and protected from predators. 

And so we do that with a couple of different resources. We have a diagram called Features of a Good Birdhouse. And then we have another tool that helps you identify which birds you can attract to your yard.

[Charles] Ahh.

[Robyn] And that’s called The Right Bird, Right House. You can put in your region of the country, and your habitat type, and it will give you a list of birds that would nest in that area.

[Charles] Oh, great.

[Robyn] And a nest box plan for building a nest box for them. And interestingly we do have an American robin plan.

[Charles] Oh really? 

[Robyn] It’s not, it’s not a nest box, it’s more of a shelf.

[Charles] Uh-huh.

[Robyn] Kind of like what the robins are nesting on.

[Charles] Yeah, right, right.

[Robyn] And it kind of just makes like a more stable place for them. So to give you a for instance, we had a robin building a nest on our gutter, and the material just kept falling off, and it wasn’t, wasn’t really staying because it was just too rounded.

[Charles] Uh-huh.

[Robyn] And so we have a couple of nest shelves that we put up to try to give the robin a better place to stabilize that foundation of that nest because they do seem to like nesting on our houses. 

[Charles] Ha, they do, and I don’t, you know, the one for example that’s nesting here, it’s an incredible nest spot because it is completely out of the weather. 

[Robyn] Yeah.

[Charles] And and this spring being as cold and rainy as it has been, it’s been pretty fun to watch them, you know not even need to weather the storms.

[Robyn] Yeah.

[Charles] You know, you’ll see the wind from time to time moving the feathers of the birds. That’s, that’s about it. And you know they seem to gain a lot by nesting right next to our houses sometimes or where we work.

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] Let’s see. Is there anything else about nest monitoring that you might want to share with people? Related to sort of how intrusive it is on the birds? Or whether it has any impact that you guys have been able to tell? 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] Or anything, anything like that regarding the nest monitoring process? 

[Robyn] Mmhmm. Okay I could certainly understand the concerns about being worried about approaching a nest and bothering the birds. And that’s a concern that, that I feel as well. We always want to be mindful of that. And lots of people have studied this, and the results are always the same that it doesn’t seem to have that much of an effect on the birds, no discernible effect. 

You don’t, as long as you’re following the protocol. 

[Charles] Right.

[Robyn] So not visiting every single day, or not during, you know, during bad weather. So if you’re following the protocol there should be no effect on the nest. Um that being said, you know, always use caution, and if the birds are especially timid, which individuals can be, then you want to just use your best judgment there.

[Charles] Great, and you probably don’t spend much time at the nest when you’re doing it either, right? 

[Robyn] Right, less than a minute, yeah, as long as it takes to peek in and count the number of eggs. And then you can move away and write down your data.

[Charles] Cool. Yeah, I mean there’s something really special, I mean I’ve watched robins my whole life, um, but it’s been really fun watching on cam. Often they’re nesting in places around my house where it’s very hard to look into the nest.

[Robyn] Mmmm.

[Charles] So I might be checking my nest during a NestWatch check using my phone, just to reach up above the nest, 

[Robyn] [Laughs] 

[Charles] snap a picture, 

[Robyn] Uh-huh.

[Charles] and then look at it down here. But to be able to actually sit there and watch these little birds breathe, watch their pin feathers starting to pop out. It’s been really fun even for me, and I’ve watched a lot of robins in my life, to watch that unfold with such a common bird.

And I think, you know, very similar feeling about it from, you know, being very young 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] even and knowing these robins. And just being like what a great bird to have around all the time. So you’ve mentioned this a few different times but if people want to learn more about NestWatch or how to get involved, where should they go? 

[Robyn] They should go to NestWatch.org. It is a website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so you can find it from the Lab of O website.

[Charles] Great.

[Robyn] But if you want to get directly to it, it’s NestWatch.org. And you know check out the photos of other people doing NestWatch. You’ll see that it’s fun, and you, you know, you’ll arm yourself with the information you need to not be so nervous about approaching a nest.

[Charles] That’s actually a great point before I, before we leave this little section of the live chat today. You mentioned the the community aspect of NestWatch, and that’s something I think this audience might be really interested in. Because we know that our cam watchers often really enjoy sharing their observations 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] of what they see. You know they’re all seeing the same thing on cam, which is kind of a different thing compared to a bunch of people watching different robin nests. So you find, you know, a thousand people see the same event, there might be a thousand different perspectives on what happened there, or picking up of a different detail. 

And, and so what kinds of places or tools, or what, in what ways does your NestWatch community interact, and are there ways that, you, that NestWatch, sort of um facilitates? Or is it sort of, are there places other than what NestWatch offers where people find that connection? 

[Robyn] Yeah, so the, a great thing about NestWatch is that people often connect offline. 

[Charles] Oh, great.

[Robyn] So we have, we have a chapters program where NestWatch chapters, or just groups of people doing NestWatch in their local community, they may organize a bluebird trail or they may lead a kids group of, you know, young birders. 

But we had a lot of people who are doing NestWatch offline, and interacting completely offline. We also have some online spaces like a photo gallery, and an annual photo competition, which is a very friendly competition. It’s very welcoming to amateur photographers. 

[Charles] Oh, great. 

[Robyn] Yeah so, it’s, you know, it’s, we really just want to see the photos and the stories, and hear about what you’re doing. And there tends to be discussion around the photos like, “Oh, you had you had a very successful year in New York. Well here’s what’s going on in Michigan.” And out in California we’re having something different happen.

So there are people seeing different things in different places, and they’re able to come together and discuss that. 

[Charles] Ah, that’s great. 

[Robyn] Even on Facebook, and you know we try to bring stuff to Facebook, and share, you know, different interesting stories that people are seeing from around the country. 

[Charles] Awesome. Well, of course any viewers out there if you have robin nests or other nests that you’ve seen in your yard or documented and want to share them with us online, you can always tweet us at @CornellRobins, you can send us an email birdcams@cornell.edu and of course you can head over the NestWatch and check out the opportunities to share your images and experiences um as a participant in NestWatch as well. 

That’s a really cool thing. I’ve definitely checked out the images on NestWatch from time to time because there are a lot of great ones, of often little birds being fed, and, you know, a wide range of photography capturing a really neat slice of bird biology. 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] Um, so you know robins I think are, as far as I can tell from the website and through our conversations leading up to this chat, you know they’re, they’re obviously a common species, but they’re also one of the most well represented sort of open cup nesters in NestWatch, right? 

And I don’t know if people out there know what an open cup nest is, and I wonder if you might just give them a quick description of what that is, and also sort of a, sort of a general overview of the kind of nests that people are monitoring in NestWatch. If you, if you have different kinds of nests that they might understand. 

[Robyn] Yeah, that’s an interesting question. There are lots of different kinds of nests from the underground burrow cam that you guys hosted not too long ago 

[Charles] Yes.

[Robyn] where you’re looking at an underground nesting situation, from the open cup like the robin and the hummingbirds, and other kinds of nests that have been streamed in the past. And then we have cavity nesting birds, which is in in most cases that’s, the easiest way to monitor those is with a nest box. And the nest box is just a predictable, stable place for a cavity nesting bird to nest. 

[Charles] And a place you can get inside. 

[Robyn] Exactly [laughs].

[Charles] It’s hard to get inside a dead tree. 

[Robyn] It’s exactly right. And it’s easy to put a cam in like your barn owl, you know, box 

[Charles] Yeah, that’s right.

[Robyn] or a kestrel box. So you can, you know, they’re just a predictable easy place to find a nest. But an open cup nest is really, you know, they take a lot of different forms. The robin nest is certainly a very cup shape, but we also see it with lots of other species. It’s the classic nest that you tend to think of when you think about a bird’s nest. 

And so we see a different, a wide variety of kinds of nests being reported to NestWatch, from cavity nesting to open cup or platform nesting like ospreys 

[Charles] Mmhmm.

[Robyn] and eagles and that kind of thing. But robins are certainly a popular species that people NestWatch.

[Charles] Yeah. 

[Robyn] And part of that may be their tendency to nest on or around our homes.

[Charles] Right. So you probably got a lot 

[Robyn] Yeah.

[Charles] of robin data. And are there other species that that you guys would be particularly interested in hearing more or learning more about through citizen viewers? Um, you know, beyond just robins let’s say, are there other, other species that would be like target species you could say for NestWatch? 

[Robyn] Um, yeah. So we we accept any kind of nest that you find into the database, so there’s no restriction there. In terms of the kind of research questions that we’re asking, we tend to have um targeted, focused research questions 

[Adult robin flies in, lands on the nest, and feeds one nestling. It waits until a nestling defecates, then takes the fecal sac in its beak and flies away] 

that vary as we discover and learn more. So new this year we’re interested, we’re collaborating with the the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates to study snake skin use as a nest material 

[Charles] Wow.

[Robyn] in great crested, ah great crested flycatcher nests [laughs]. It’s a mouthful to get out [laughs].

[Charles] [Laughs] yeah, they’re beautiful, wow.

[Robyn] Yeah, they are beautiful cavity nesting flycatchers, a beautiful brown and yellow bird. And yes, we’re partnering there to ask questions about why do they put snake skins in their nest? 

[Charles] Yeah, what a cool behavior. 

[Robyn] Strange, not a whole lot of birds do it. Does it help? Or is it a warning? Is it a, you know, what is that for? What’s that about? So we’re asking that question this year. 

In the past we have targeted questions such as does feeding bluebirds and chickadees improve the nesting outcome? 

[Charles] Yeah? 

[Robyn] So we can ask people, well, so this is this is very new.

[Charles] Okay.

[Robyn] I’m presenting this later this year at a conference.

[Charles] Oh, great. 

[Robyn] But um, yeah, it’s, so from what I’ve seen so far there hasn’t been a tremendous difference in the fit and unfitness.

[Charles] Interesting. 

[Robyn] So, but that’s all very preliminary. So that kind of a new subject that I’m a newly interested in is does providing supplemental food really assist with the survival of the young? 

We’ve looked at predator guards on nest boxes and whether or not that has an impact on the success of the cavity nesting bird community. So we had a lot of different types of questions that shift over time. 

[Charles] Mmhmm.

[Robyn] Any different, any given year you can tune in and participate in one of those specific kinds 

[Charles] Oh, that’s great.

[Robyn] of questions, or just contribute. 

[Charles] To the general monitoring.

[Robyn] Yeah, yep.

[Charles] That’s pretty cool. And our robins seem to be doing really successfully. They’re eight days in, the chicks seem to be thriving by all accounts, and is that a pretty common thing that robins? Is there anything you can say commonly happens, let’s say with the whole species or with robins in the Northeast or something like that? 

And um, and do our robins sort of, if you’re, if you’re following a robin nest in your yard, let’s say, and it’s being successful, does that tell you anything about the how the birds are doing around you? 

[Robyn] Mmhmm. Yeah. That’s um, that’s a complex question, there are a lot of layers there [laughs].

[Charles] Yeah, definitely.

[Robyn] [Laughs] I’ll try to stay on task.

[Charles] Well, if you can unpack the ones 

[Robyn] But data! [laughs] We need data, first of all. More data is always great, but I was looking at the data from last year. And we did look at regional variation in nesting success of robins, which tend to be in one of our, in our top ten list that we look at from year to year, so.

The nesting success has been pretty, pretty typical of what you would expect. So anywhere from fifty to seventy percent successful.

[Charles] Wow, that’s great.

[Robyn] Around, depending on where you are in the country. And that’s, that’s pretty good, actually. If you consider that some species have much lower nesting success.

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] We do tend to see higher nesting success in cavity nesting birds.

[Charles] Okay.

[Robyn] Because obviously you can put them in a box, and guard the box.

[Charles] Protect them.

[Robyn] And protect them, so we tend to see a little bit higher nest success there, but. Um, you know, last year in any case it looked like they were doing pretty well, so. 

[Charles] Okay.

[Robyn] Um. But it’s always interesting to look into the data and see what, what the stories are. 

[Charles] Yeah, for sure. It’s, and that’s where, you know, since they’re so easy, they’re much easier to find than some nests. You know, it’s easy to wonder whether or not what you’re seeing at a given nest is happening, you know, with the other birds that are nesting around it, I guess you know, in the area. 

[Robyn] Well, I can tell you a little bit about my own nest boxes and my nests here in the Ithaca area.

[Charles] Sure, that would be great.

[Robyn] To get, you know, to relate it back to this particular robin that seems to be doing just, just fine. It really depends on the species. I had Carolina wrens nesting in my front porch, and they already fledged they’re young.

[Charles] Wow.

[Robyn] And everything was great, they seemed to do really well.

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] And there were no hiccups there. It’s been a different story out on the nest box trail. I don’t know if it’s been all the rain or the cool weather, but we’ve definitely seen, you know, by we I mean a team of local researchers who are monitoring nests around Ithaca, we’ve been seeing some struggles there. And it could be related to just the low availability of insects with all the crazy weather we’ve been having lately. 

[Charles] Right.

[Robyn] Cool, rainy spring has not really helped. 

[Charles] Yeah we, we’ve not seen much sun this, this spring. It’s been a tough, though more or less typical Ithaca spring slash winter [laughs] still.

[Robyn] Yeah [laughs].

[Charles] And just so people if you do hear, if our viewers hear some extraneous noise coming through the mic from time to time, we are sort of in a public part of the visitor’s center where you can go anytime, up here on the second floor. 

But that also means people might come in at any point in time, and we did just get a big group of school children 

[Robyn] [Laughs] 

[Charles] coming into the visitor center that I just saw come in beneath me here. So um, enjoy the din.

[Robyn] It’s always something [laughs]. 

[Charles] They, they weren’t on the schedule, but um, they’re great.

So one, one question that we get is, you know, I have a robin that comes back to nest on my house every year, like 20 years. Is it the same pair? 

[Robyn] [Laughs] 

[Charles] And is there, is there way for you to be able to tell that? Or what, you know, what can you, what can you tell a person who gives you a story like that, or a question like that? 

[Robyn] Yeah, and so we really don’t know, we don’t have a great answer for that. I would say unless the birds have a band, like your robin has a band.

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] It’s hard to know if it’s the same pair that comes back year after year. Um I suspect that it could be either one or the other of the pair that is, you know, kind of imprinted on that location that might keep coming back.

[Charles] Mmhmm.

[Robyn] Because they are territorial, they do defend a territory. And if it’s been successful in the past, why wouldn’t they use it again? 

[Charles] Sure.

[Robyn] That being said, you know, the average lifespan of a robin is not 20 years. So what we could be seeing in those instances are either offspring that are, you know, familiar with the area that didn’t, either didn’t migrate, or just new robins that acknowledge and recognize that this is a great nesting spot.

[Charles] It’s a good spot, yeah.

[Robyn] It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s, it’s doubtful that it’s a single, the same exact pair of birds for 20 years.

[Charles] Right. Well and Emma reached out to us on Twitter and sort of made the observation that the female on our camera seems to have a pretty dark plumage, both a dark head, she has that white spot on the back 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] and a fairly, you know, rufousy chest. And she was, she sort of remarked that she thought that female robins were usually lighter. And so I wondered if, if you in your experience working with robins, you know, if you had a sense of is there sort of a consistent way to differentiate between those males and females? And sort of, sort of wide variety or variation I should say in their plumage? 

[Robyn] Mmhmm. Yeah, so they do tend to be sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females look different from each other. It’s typical for males to be darker around the hood, the face, and the back of the neck. That being said individuals vary, and some females may have different hormone levels, or different, their plumage may just be really fresh and, and really bright. 

So they’ve had a really great year, and they’re doing, you know, growing fresh new plumage. So it really does vary, and it also depends on where you are in the country.

[Charles] Oh, really? 

[Robyn] So it’s harder to predict that in some parts of the country. Out west the birds are, the robins are paler 

[Charles] Okay. 

[Robyn] so there’s, there still does tend to be that trend of males being darker and more colorful. But if you just showed me a picture of a robin from California and asked me if it was male or a female, with my eastern bias 

[Charles] Right.

[Robyn] I would probably say oh that’s a female without really thinking about it. But there are some geographic differences there.

[Charles] Gotcha. 

[Robyn] You can, you can predict with pretty good confidence whether it’s a male or female if you know the birds in your area and what they’re supposed to look like, or what they traditionally do look like.

[Charles] Gotcha.

[Robyn] But you always want to use caution because you can never say a hundred percent, as we, as we know from some birds just being really bright.

[Charles] Totally.

[Robyn] So it’s hard to say for sure. 

[Charles] Yeah, and, and you know when I first saw the female when we were setting up the camera even, when I saw a bird flush from around the nest, um, or we waited for the bird to fly, and I saw the bird land, and it’s like my goodness that looks like a male robin.

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] You know, so even me and I’ve seen a lot of robins in my life. At first I thought that female was a male by plumage. She was just so, so much contrast in her plumage. So in terms of, so we have males and females, let’s say we can’t tell them apart that well um from their plumage. 

Let’s just say that for this pair, how might we also tell which one is female or male? Is there any other behavioral cues we might be able to use to help us? I mean obviously the female has a band in our case.

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] But what, what? Are there things the female does that the male doesn’t? 

[Robyn] Um, so the females do most of the nest building. So there are behavioral cues. 

[Charles] Yep.

[Robyn] The female is going to build the nest. The male might help choose the nest site, or show some different nest sites, but the female is largely responsible for building it.

[Charles] Okay.

[Robyn] Obviously she lays the eggs.

[Charles] Yeah, that’s a real important one. 

[Robyn] Does the lion’s share of the work there [laughs] with the nesting cycle. The male will be bringing food to the nestlings once 

[Charles] Once they hatch. 

[Robyn] you know, at that point after they hatch. Um behaviorally, like off the nest, males sing and defend the territory. So you may see a singing male, he might be chasing an intruder off of its territory, getting into battles. Although you tend to see females being very territorial 

[Adult robin flies in and lands on the nest with worms in its beak. It feeds the nestlings, waits for one to defecate, eats the fecal sac, then flies away] 

as well against other females.

[Charles] Oh, interesting. Okay.

[Robyn] There are some behavioral cues and some songs to listen for. 

[Charles] Nice.

[Robyn] Keep an eye out for. 

[Charles] And as far as the nest sites go, Ian gave us a question on Facebook. Were, do, is there, from your data maybe on NestWatch is there any sort of pattern in the nest orientation of robins? Or any other species if not, if you don’t have data for robins if there’s other birds that you know of that have specific nest orientation preferences for their nests? Um…

[Robyn] Yeah, so orientation by, for an open cup nest that’s a little interpretive question. Do you mean orientation of the bird on the nest, or the orientation of the way that the nest is facing? I haven’t seen in the data or in the literature a lot of differences in orientation.

[Charles] Mmhmm.

[Robyn] What we do see are differences in nest placements, nest height, and the substrate that the nest is on.

[Charles] Ah, okay. 

[Robyn] So typically what we see in Ithaca in the early part of the spring is robins nesting low in an evergreen shrub.

[Charles] Ahh.

[Robyn] Obviously our robins did not take that [laughs] they didn’t read that paper [laughter] tell them where they were supposed to nest. But we do tend to see a progression from low evergreen shrubs to high in a deciduous tree.

[Charles] Oh wow.

[Robyn] And the reason for that is they like to have dense cover overhead. Obviously our guys found 

[Charles] Very dense. Concrete.

[Robyn] [Laughs] some cover overhead and they didn’t need to worry about our vegetation leafing out. 

[Charles] Right. 

[Robyn] So, you know, but you see different things out west, too. You see ground nests on the prairies and plains where there may not be as many trees. 

[Charles] Oh wow.

[Robyn] Even cliff nests in some situations if, you know, there’s a lot of canyons or cliffs around they can choose that as well.

[Charles] Oh, cool.

[Robyn] So there’s a lot of difference there, they’re really adaptable. 

[Charles] Well and, do they, um, will this be likely to—let’s say they’re successful on this nest. Do they ever have more clutches of eggs in a summer or breeding season? 

[Robyn] Yes, I suspect you know the answer to that. 

[Charles] I do, I know some answers. 

[Robyn] Because we have a little insider knowledge here.

[Charles] We do.

[Robyn] That we actually have had robins reusing some of the nests around the building 

[Charles] Over and over again.

[Robyn] in the past [laughs]. Year after year, in fact, because the mud on them actually is pretty well preserved with our roof overhang. But yeah, we, so robins will typically have two maybe even three nests in a year. Um they’re very productive, so they can they can re-nest, they can go on to have a third nest if there’s, in a pretty temperate area with good weather. 

And as I mentioned we have seen some fall, 

[Charles] Yeah, it’s incredible. 

[Robyn] strange nesting behaviors. So they do re-nest, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to try again .and for sure if, if they don’t come back to this one next year then presumably they’ll be somewhere in the area 

[Charles] Right, yeah.

[Robyn] on this territory. 

[Charles] And as we know we were able to actually read the band on that bird with the camera, and um somebody here in the building that has been banding birds here locally for some time, banded this female back in 2014, and she was at least already in the second year of her life. So she was in full adult plumage at that point. 

So she’s at least four years old, possibly older, which is, which is a nice, nice prime of her life kind of age for a robin, as far as, as far as we can tell. 

Barbara on Facebook was wondering, you know we’ve seen the robin, usually the female, kind of poking her bill into the nest. This was even I think while the eggs were there, and while the chicks were very young. 

So it was clear that she wasn’t sort of tending necessarily to the eggs or the chicks, and wondered if you had any insight on what she might be doing, manipulating, you know, sort of looking like she’s manipulating the nesting substrate. It was hard to tell what she’s going after, something in the nest substrate, or yeah, so I wondered if you had any insight into what she might be doing there? 

[Robyn] Yeah, um, it could it could have been a number of different things, so. They did turn the eggs, but it sounds like that was not what was 

[Charles] Yeah, not so much.

[Robyn] being seen at that point. So apart from egg turning, we do see adults tend to clean the nest, so they keep the nest clean. They might have been removing any eggshell fragments, or possibly any invertebrates that were occupying the nest. 

[Charles] Mmm.

[Robyn] To get rid of any mites or the stray flea or tick that was in the nest. So that could be happening. We also know that birds repair the nest from time to time, so if something just wasn’t quite sitting right 

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] she may have been adjusting it. It’s really hard to know, even just, you know, kind of preening the chicks occasionally. I have seen birds try to preen the feather sheaths off of the young, so.

[Charles] Oh, wow. That’s pretty cool.

[Robyn] Who knows, but those are some of the options of what might be going on down there. 

[Charles] And, you know, the the first hatching, um nestling is about eight days old today. Um what’s the range of time when when robins, use, number of days it usually takes them to fledge? 

[Robyn] Yeah, so 12 to 14 days is the typical range. What I have been seeing out and in the nest boxes of some similar, you know, in a similar climate and region as this is it’s been taking a little bit longer. 

[Charles] Mmm.

[Robyn] And maybe these guys hatched past the point where we were having some really, some poor weather, so I think that they should be on track. But I have been seeing a little bit of a delay in the, in the other birds around the area.

[Charles] Gotcha. Well, so, so for viewers that would be, you know, probably sometime Friday through Monday, possibly later depending on whether or not they’ve sort of been delayed a little bit by the cold weather. But that’s, that’s pretty exciting, but it’s incredible they can grow that fast. 

[Robyn] Yeah, 13 days is just nothing, it’s instance. 

[Charles] They go from an egg to something that can sort of fly out of the nest in that short period of time. You know, I have a hard time getting the dishes washed I feel like sometimes now.

[Robyn] [Laughs] Or the laundry.

[Charles] Exactly, the laundry, that’s the worst. Um so TweetyBird, that’s a good name for Twitter, TweetyBird on Twitter um, she’s, she made an observation that we’ve actually gotten a lot of feedback about. She says, “I noticed the robin take the baby’s poop as it came out. Does this happen in just robins, or other birds, too? And why?” 

[Robyn] That’s a really interesting bit of housekeeping, actually. So lots of small songbirds do have this fecal sac nest sanitation. And what it is it’s just a kind of gelatinous membrane around the excreta 

[Charles] Mmhmm.

[Robyn] we might say. That makes it easier to carry the waste away. And you might carry your waste away from the nest for a number of hygienic reasons, just to keep the bacteria levels low in the nest. It’s also possible that it could function as a predator deterrent. So if there’s not an accumulation. 

[Charles] Like a smell or yeah, mark.

[Robyn] Exactly, cues that would cue in predators to find the nest. So it could have a number of different functions. But the thing that I think is most interesting about it is how instantaneous it is.

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] And if you think about it, that makes sense. Because the bird comes in with food, and it comes away with a fecal sac, to either to swallow or to drop, as the chicks get older they’ll drop them. And that’s a really efficient way of doing things, because otherwise they’d have to make a separate trip.

[Charles] Twice the number of visits. 

[Robyn] Exactly. If, one for deliveries, and one for removal. So in this way they manage to make both legs of the journey efficient and useful. And it’s just kind of instantaneous and I think that’s really strange. 

[Charles] Well, it’s impressive to watch them get fed, and then just, you know, the chicks will settle back down on the nest, and then they’ll just sort of start turning their rear ends up, and the adults are sitting there waiting for it. Um, and, yeah, you know, half the number of visits to the nest, I mean for me the easiest way to find the nest is to watch a, an adult bird you know flying around a little bit during this time year. And especially if they’re carrying food, they’re going to lead you to a nest, right? 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] And so by cutting down those nest visits in half, that might be a really important part of the, you know, sort of you know reducing the visits so that predators and other things can’t cue in on it as well. 

[Robyn] Well, we do know that not all birds do this. So I wanted to just mention quickly that some species don’t have this mechanism, and we don’t see it in pigeons and doves, house finches, goldfinches. A lot of your more vegetarian birds tend to just um excrete right outside the nest.

[Charles] Huh.

[Robyn] There’s no carrying it away, so.

[Charles] Interesting.

[Robyn] Depending on which species might be nesting on your home, or on your front porch [laughs] or balcony that might be a good thing or a bad thing [laughs] but. You might be fertilizing your potted plant that your house finch might be nesting in.

[Charles] That’s a good point.

[Robyn] Yeah [laughs]. So they may or may not be as welcome in some parts of our front doors, and our front right patios.

[Charles] Right.

[Robyn] But, you know, it’s easy to clean up, so. 

[Charles] Yeah. 

[Robyn] I let them do it.

[Charles] [Laughs]. Well and we’ve certainly seen, you know, different big birds taking a different approach to it, like the the Cornell hawks on campus, or even the herons back here at the pond. For quite a while they get over the edge of the nest, and then let it fly.

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] At least the hawks on campus, I think the people parking underneath the, the lights over there learn that pretty fast. 

[Robyn] It’s like a vacancy of parking spaces. 

[Charles] Or there are just some cars with, you know, white on them. 

So one question, one person is worried about a robin’s nested someplace where they need to come in and out quite a bit, and she’s wondered, you know, if she’s disturbing it how long can the eggs remain uncovered? And um, you know before the robins’ you know, breeding is affected, right? 

So if she’s going in and out, let’s say to a shed, to get her riding lawnmower in and out.

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] Um, is there some period of time after which it’s not, it, like that’s bad? Because they do fly off the nest to forage and things like that. Is there any sort of guideline? Not that you could make the robin go back.

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] But, when we do when would you call a nest abandoned? I guess is sort of the end game of that question.

[Robyn] Yeah, that’s a difficult thing to assess because some birds are much more tolerant of disturbance than others.

[Charles] Mmhmm.

[Robyn] And, you know, our nests here are getting a little bit of foot traffic underneath, and they seem to be okay with that. But in the case where a bird might be nesting, we see this a lot with robins on front doors. 

[Charles] Oh.

[Robyn] They love front door wreaths 

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] and patio lights. And we see that a lot, and so this is a common question. And it’s just really hard to predict. I would say you could know that a nest was abandoned if, you know, that 12 to 14 day incubation period has come and gone and nobody’s monit—attending the nest. 

And sometimes that, you know, they could be off the nest for more hours or more percentage of their time than they normally would, and the nest will still be fine as long as it’s being incubated. 

[Charles] Gotcha, so they can, the eggs can withstand some variation in their incubation rhythm.

[Robyn] Definitely, yeah, they can with, and they’re adapted to withstand some, some temperature variations and being left alone. That being said, I don’t know of a great way to prevent that 

[Charles] To know, yeah.

[Robyn] from happening. And I’ve dealt with this with robins nesting right over my front door.

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] And I found that not making eye contact was helpful [laughs].

[Charles] [Laughs] 

[Robyn] If I avoided eye contact, she would stay on her nest and we would leave each other alone. You know I could still get in my house [laughs]. But it really depends on the individual bird, and you know just [laughs] maybe try not to make eye contact, and keep the disturbance to a minimum. But sometimes, yeah, they just nest right on our front door and there’s nothing, nothing to be done about it.

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] And you assume that they knew that when they 

[Charles] Right, when they chose to nest there.

[Robyn] chose to nest there.

[Charles] Right. Um. So we have a kindergarten class, Mrs. Wyman’s class, and they’ve been wondering how the mom sits on the hatchlings without hurting them. And it kind of gets to the idea of what mom’s even doing in that situation. 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] So I don’t know if you might be able to speak to why mom even does sit on these nestlings, and maybe why it doesn’t hurt them.

[Robyn] Yeah, that’s a fun question [laughs]. Yeah, so I guess we’re talking about brooding the young. And you know the mom coming to the nest, kind of warming them. And they’ll, and they’ll do this at night and sleep on the nest, and you know, throughout cool periods when the, for the first few days especially when they young can’t, can’t thermoregulate or keep themselves warm so the parent will do this.

And yeah I said, I suspect that even if she was putting all her weight on them that they would still be fine because it’s all proportional to the life scale of a robin [laughs].

[Charles] Right, yes. Small little guy, right.

[Robyn] Yeah, you might be, you, maybe you’re getting sat on by your mom, but your mom weighs less than an iPhone.

[Charles] Right [laughs].

[Robyn] So, you know, birds are um, they’re light, so the, you know, the adults are fairly light to begin with.

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] Like I said, lighter than an iPhone, so we’re not talking about a heavy bird. And then babies are resilient, you know, they have bones, they have, they’re accustomed to this lifestyle, and they’re mashing and climbing on top of each other as well, so. 

[Charles] Yeah, I also kind of think of it, when I look at that robin it seems like such a big bird, but I know that all that rounded bigness of that robin, a bunch of it’s just a, essentially a big, fluffy pillow.

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] And so when I see her sitting on those, on the young, you know, my imagination is more like there’s a, there’s a pillow with a skeleton inside it, kind of.

[Robyn] [Laughs] 

[Charles] And as it sits down on them the pillow just kind of envelops them a little bit, at least in some sense. There’s obviously skin and organs and other things in there, but all those are squishy. So it’s a good question, you know, when you see them all cramming into that nest. And probably as they get bigger she’ll spend less and less time doing that, right? 

[Robyn] Yeah. Kindergartners are great at asking questions that are [laughs] difficult to answer. 

[Charles] Definitely. Um, that’s what makes them so great.

[Robyn] Yes, exactly.

[Charles] [Inaudible] So, you know, we’ve seen them bring lots of different stuff to the nest. But one thing obviously that people think of when they think of robins is worms. 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] You know, and so Leslie wrote us an email asking us, you know, what else would they eat besides worms? And does dry weather make it hard for them to find worms? And those seem like good questions.

[Robyn] Yeah, those are good questions. Of course certainly they eat earthworms and other small, soft insects. Soft-bodied insects are things like grubs or caterpillars, typically “unarmored caterpillars” that don’t have the spiky hairs and the needles, so.

[Charles] Uh-huh.

[Robyn] Um inchworms are a type of caterpillar that are really particularly delectable. They’re very soft and squishy, and essentially defenseless, so.

[Charles] You’re speaking like you’ve tried them. 

[Robyn] Yeah, exactly.

[Charles] [Laughs] 

[Robyn] No, I’ve seen birds just cleaning up 

[Charles] Oh.

[Robyn] the geometric caterpillars, the little tiny inchworm guys.

[Charles] I love those.

[Robyn] They just, they just clean up, they love them. And they’re just defenseless so they’re great 

[Charles] [Laughs] 

[Robyn] bird fodder.

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] Um, of course, as the chicks get a little bit older they can be fed more whole insects, and insects that maybe aren’t as soft and squishy. And of course fruit. Fruit is a big part of the robin’s diet, so they’re gonna be getting more fruit as the fruits become available. Maybe there’s already some fruits that are available that have been out there, so. 

It’s a good mixture they’re pretty omnivorous and opportunistic. 

[Charles] That’s maybe one of the things that helps buffer their response to that warming trend, as well. 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] That you were talking about earlier, just the fact they can eat so many different things.

[Robyn] Oh, I didn’t address the um, the drought earthworm question.

[Charles] Oh yeah.

[Robyn] And I’m probably not the best person to talk about earthworm 

[Charles] Sure.

[Robyn] survival of droughts, but. If you notice robins do typically 

[Adult female robin flies in, lands on the nest, and feeds nestlings. Her band is visible. Adult male robin also flies in and lands on the nest. He feeds nestlings, collects fecal sac, and flies away. Female waits for another fecal sac, collects it, and flies away.] 

do a lot of their foraging early in the morning and in the evening when earthworms are closest to the surface.

[Charles] Huh.

[Robyn] And earthworms tend to be in places where there is a lot of organic matter in the soil, and the precipitation and soil humidity is conducive to being an earthworm, so.

[Charles] Yeah.

[Robyn] They tend to, you know, they have their habitat preferences, and they have their behavioral patterns that robins are cueing in on, so. The robins are good at figuring out when to get the worms, but yeah I would imagine if there was a severe drought the earthworms would kind of 

[Charles] Be more difficult.

[Robyn] hunker down and be difficult to, for the robins to get to. But in those cases they would hopefully find some fruits or other food sources. 

[Charles] Well we’ve got about ten minutes left before noon here, and got a few questions left that have been asked from the, from the community. And a couple of them involve, uh, conserving or helping birds like robins.

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] And Melanie asked on email does putting, putting lots of chemicals on the lawn hurt the survival of robins and their chicks? And this is a great question because lots of people love their lawns and want to care for their lawns. There’s places like golf courses, obviously, and robins probably like those big expanses, as well as other birds like bluebirds and things.

So is there is there anything that science actually can tell us about that that you guys, either via NestWatch or something you’ve read while sort of looking at these habitat associations that helps us know whether or not treating our lawns is bad for robins?

[Robyn] Yeah, so I mean certainly Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. 

[Charles] A good starting point, right? 

[Robyn] The literature and that, the science um certainly suggests that pesticides on lawns are very problematic. So robins being, getting most of their food from the ground, they’re very vulnerable to pesticide poisoning. So you want to be not spraying anything like that. 

And another question that comes up occasionally is fertilizers. And, you know, what if you’re just putting a fertilizer on? And to be honest I’m not quite sure what the impact of fertilizer only is on, on robins. I mean, I don’t really know how that interacts with the earthworms that they eat. And the other invertebrates that, that they’re, they’re foraging on. So I’m not completely sure, and I don’t know, maybe there are some studies I’m not familiar with them about fertilizers, but definitely pesticides 

[Charles] Pesticides.

[Robyn] should be avoided. 

[Charles] And it would seem like pesticides would remove a lot of the reasons why robins would want to be there as well, right? 

[Robyn] Definitely.

[Charles] Like the pesticides are removing the food, that’s also probably not great for robins. You know, the food they’re going to find is potentially pesticide impregnated, but there may just not be enough food for them to 

[Robyn] Yeah.

[Charles] [Inaudible] good habitat. 

[Robyn] Yeah.

[Charles] Um, let’s see here. Um, the second one is actually kind of related to one I asked before about abandoning, Ginny wrote via email about being in a garden center um and potentially having a robin abandon her nest. So I feel like we’ve dealt with that one with the earlier statement. 

So… one question, and it doesn’t really involve nesting so much, so you can you can say whether or not you feel like you’re kind of in a great spot to answer it, but a lot of people think of robins as being the hallmark of spring, right? Oh, the robins are back, right? 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] Um, and you have had some birds nesting at odd times of the year, which um would suggest that sometimes maybe they don’t go anywhere? And so I don’t know if you know anything about what they’re doing when they’re not sitting there beautifully nesting on your house.

[Robyn] [Laughs] 

[Charles] And can tell people a little bit more about what they’re doing sort of across the, the year of their life, right? Between breeding cycles, I guess.

[Robyn] Yeah, so obviously I do study nesting birds, and I’m not a person who puts geolocators on robins 

[Charles] Right.

[Robyn] and knows where they’re going. But what we know from things like eBird and Christmas Bird Counts, and um, you know surveys that citizen scientists have contributed to, as well as um you know professionals who are putting bands on robins, and looking at the band return rates is that robins really are making, they’re short distance migrants. 

They’re following this seasonal availability of food, so they’re looking for fruit. They’re moving around responding to earthworm availability, and other arthropod availability, and fruit. 

So um the average distance that they move in a season is not that far.

[Charles] Hmm.

[Robyn] We do see movements down from Canada into the southern and coastal states where it’s a bit more temperate, and overwintering there. And you might see some local resident robins mixing with the Canadian robins, which you know is understandable. And you know I would want to, I would want to move south as well. 

[Charles] [Inaudible] Yeah, right.

[Robyn] But they’re not obligated to migrate. So I think what we’re seeing when we see these big flocks of robins in the spring, it certainly could be some of the ones that chose to winter a little bit south are moving back up. 

Or it could just be your local flock that is, you know, they’ve exhausted the food in one area so now they’ve moved into your neighborhood 

[Charles] Right.

[Robyn] to find the food there. So we don’t, we do see some seasonal movements, but um the arguments are kind of weak 

[Adult robin flies in and feeds nestlings. It waits for a fecal sac, consumes it, then flies away.] 

that they make these really distinct 

[Charles] Big movements.

[Robyn] big movements, yeah. 

[Charles] Um that’s always, I always wind up, you know, we’ll get these flocks of robins that come through in the late winter hitting our sumac for example, or finding you know some some late berries that hadn’t been eaten by somebody else. And um it’s always amazing to see them in big groups. 

One of my favorite things to do when there’s a late snowstorm after they’ve come back is actually go shovel a chunk of my yard. And then all of a sudden there’s this immense concentration of robins all hopping around in the backyard in a single patch of grass, right? 

[Robyn] Mmhmm.

[Charles] Because they won’t forage on the snow that much. So yeah they’re just incredibly adaptable birds. 

Um, so that’s through most of our questions that we’ve had. I wondered if you might be able to give folks um an idea of what the next five or six days might hold for this nest that they’re going to see on camera. Like what’s, what sort of, how is this going to progress? 

You know right now we have three nestlings who opened their eyes maybe a couple days ago, and are eating pretty well. How are they going to continue to change before they fly off at the end of it? 

[Robyn] Yeah, good question. I can answer that based on what I know happens in most nests.

[Charles] Right.

[Robyn] The nestlings will continue to gain weight, and they’ll actually achieve probably approaching their maximum mass in the next couple of days, and then they’ll lose a little bit of weight typically right before fledging.

[Charles] Huh.

[Robyn] You know as they get a little bit leaner, and start exercising those wing muscles. But um, yeah their feathers will come in a little bit more than they are right now. They’re, they’ll actually have really cute little like short, stubby tails

[Charles] Mmhmm.

[Robyn] and short wing feathers, so they’ll get a little cuter [laughs].

[Charles] Excellent.

[Robyn] If you’re not into it right now, they’re definitely going to get cuter over time. They’ll start standing up in the nest, and getting a little bit more restless, maybe peaking out and becoming more aware of what’s going on around them, so.


And we, what we see with those nestlings is they’re kind of unaware of, they’ll beg at anything that approaches during the early days, then as they get more aware they get a little bit more alert, and perhaps fearful of any activity right around the nest. So um once you start to see that you know that fledging is going to follow pretty soon. 

Like I said they might drop a little bit of weight, start moving around and getting a little friskier, and exercising, and moving around in the nest more, but. Yeah if things go well then I think that we should be looking at a fledge pretty soon, and that could take… maybe they would all fledge in the same day, maybe not. Perhaps um there might be 24 hours difference between the first and the last ones to go. But the parents will continue to feed them until they all fledge.

So I think we’re on track here for a good nesting cycle. 

[Charles] It’s exciting, well, yeah, we can never tell what happens, especially, what’s going to happen I should say, but um it’s been really fun watching them so far, and it’s been really great talking with you today about robins and about NestWatch.

[Robyn] Thank you.

[Charles] So thank you so much for joining us. I want to remind everybody if you want to learn more about NestWatch you can check out NestWatch at NestWatch dot O-R-G. You can learn about what it takes to become a NestWatcher yourself, and you can start looking outside wherever you go and seeing if you too can notice nests of birds like this robin, or other birds that might live around you. 

And just a reminder they have tools on that website to help you learn what birds might be around you, to help you with building nest boxes, and to give you all the tools necessary to feel like a competent, safe nest monitor. 

So um thanks again to Robyn Bailey, project leader for NestWatch, and thanks to everybody who watched out there in cam land. This is Charles Eldermire coming to you live from Sapsucker Woods, and thanks a lot for listening today. Bye-bye.

End of transcript

When our Bird Cams project launched a live streaming camera from an American Robin nest, viewers had plenty of questions about nesting biology. Our NestWatch project leader, Robyn Bailey, took time to answer the questions in a live video chat.

In this hour-long video, Robyn covers questions like:

  • How old are robin chicks when they leave the nest
  • Can eggs survive being left uncovered?
  • Do lawn chemicals harm adult birds or young chicks?

Update on the Bird Cams 2017 robin nest: All of the nestling robins fledged successfully, with two leaving during the afternoon of May 21, and the third departing during the early morning of May 22. The camera is now off, but there are plans to stream any additional nesting attempts at this site (robins often have 2 or even 3 clutches per season).