Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Robin

Teacher's Story

dropcap image OST of us think we know the robin well, but very few of us know definitely the habits of this, our commonest bird. The object of this lesson is to form in the pupils a habit of careful observation, and enable them to read for themselves the interesting story of this little life which is lived every year before their eyes. Moreover, a robin note-book, if well kept, is a treasure for any child; and the close observation necessary for this lesson trains the pupils to note in a comprehending way the habits of other birds. It is the very best preparation for bird study of the right sort.

A few robins occasionally find a swamp where they can obtain food to nourish them during the northern winter, but for the most part, they go in flocks to our Southern States where they settle in swamps and cedar forests and live upon berries. They are killed in great numbers by the native hunters who eat them or sell them for table use, a performance not understandable to the northerner. The robins do not nest nor sing while in Southland, and no wonder! When the robins first come to us in the spring they feed on wild berries, being especially fond of those of the Virginia creeper. As soon as the frost is out of the ground they begin feeding on earthworms, cutworms, white grubs, and other insects. The male robins come first, but do not sing until their mates arrive.

The robin is ten inches long and the English sparrow is only six and one-third inches long; the pupils should get the sizes of these two birds fixed in their minds for comparison in measuring other birds. The father robin is much more decided in color than his mate; his beak is yellow, there is a yellow ring about the eye and a white spot above it. The head is black and the back slaty-brown; the breast is brilliant reddish brown or bay and the throat is white, streaked with black. The mother bird has paler back and breast and has no black upon the head. The wings of both are a little darker than the back, the tail is black with the two outer feathers tipped with white. These white spots do not show except when the bird is flying and are "call colors," that is, they enable the birds to see each other and thus keep together when flying in flocks during the night. The white patch made by the under tail-coverts serves a similar purpose. The feet and legs are strong and dark in color.

The robin has many sweet songs and he may be heard in the earliest dawn and also in the evenings; if he wishes to cheer his mate he may burst into song at any time. He feels especially songful before the summer showers when he seems to sing, "I have a theory, a theory, it's going to rain." And he might well say that he also has a theory, based on experience, that a soaking shower will drive many of the worms and larvæ in the soil up to the surface where he can get them. Besides these songs the robins have a great variety of notes which the female shares, although she is not a singer. The agonizing, angry cries they utter when they see a cat or squirrel must express their feelings fully; while they give a very different warning note when they see crow or hawk, a note hard to describe, but which is a long, not very loud squeak.

A robin can run or hop as pleases him best, and it is interesting to see one, while hunting earthworms, run a little distance, then stop to bend the head and listen for his prey, and when he finally seizes the earthworm he braces himself on his strong legs and tugs manfully until he sometimes almost falls over backward as the worm lets go its hold. The robins, especially at nesting time, eat many insects as well as earthworms.

The beginning of a robin's nest is very interesting; much strong grass, fine straw, leaves and rootlets are brought and placed on a secure support. When enough of this material is collected and arranged, the bird goes to the nearest mud puddle or stream margin and fills its beak with soft mud and going back "peppers" it into the nest material, and after the latter is soaked the bird gets into it and molds it to the body by nestling and turning around and around. In one case which the author watched the mother bird did this part of the building, although the father worked industriously in bringing the other materials. After the nest is molded but not yet hardened, it is lined with fine grass or rootlets. If the season is very dry and there is no soft mud at hand, the robins can build without the aid of this plaster. There are usually four eggs laid which are exquisite greenish blue in color.


Robin on nest.

Both parents share the monotonous business of incubating, and in the instance under the eyes of the author the mother bird was on the nest at night; the period of incubating is from eleven to fourteen days. The most noticeable thing about a very young robin is its wide, yellow-margined mouth, which it opens like a satchel every time the nest is jarred. This wide mouth cannot but suggest to anyone that it is meant to be stuffed, and the two parents work very hard to fill it. Both parents feed the young and often the father feeds the mother bird while she is brooding. Professor Treadwell experimented with young robins and found that each would take 68 earthworms daily; these worms if laid end to end would measure about 14 feet. Think of 14 feet of earthworm being wound into the little being in the nest, no wonder that it grows so fast! I am convinced that each pair of robins about our house has its own special territory for hunting worms, and that any trespasser is quickly driven off. The young bird's eyes are unsealed when they are from six to eight days old, and by that time the feather tracts, that is, the place where the feathers are to grow, are covered by the spine-like pin-feathers; these feathers push the down out and it often clings to their tips. In eleven days the birds are pretty well feathered; their wing feathers are fairly developed but alas, they have no tail feathers! When a young robin flies from the nest he is a very uncertain and tippy youngster, not having any tail to steer him while flying, nor to balance him when alighting.

It is an anxious time for the old robins when the young ones leave the nest, and they flutter about and scold at any one who comes in sight, so afraid are they that injury will come to their inexperienced young ones; for some time the parents care for the fledglings, solicitously feeding them and giving them warnings of danger. The young robin shows in its plumage its relation to the thrush family, for it is yellowish and very spotted and speckled, especially the breast. The parents may raise several broods, but they never use the same nest for two consecutive broods, both because it may be infested with parasites and because it is more or less soiled; although the mother robin works hard to keep it clean, carrying away all waste matter in her beak and dropping it. Robins do not sing much after the breeding season is over until after they have molted. They are fond of cherries and other pulp fruits and often do much damage to such crops. The wise orchardist will plant a few Russian mulberry trees at a reasonable distance from his cherry trees, and thus, by giving the robins a fruit which they like better, and which ripens a little earlier, he may save his cherries. It has been proven conclusively that the robins are far more beneficial than damaging to the farmer; they destroy many noxious insects, two-thirds of their food the entire year consisting of insects; during April and May they do a great work in destroying cutworms.

The robins stay with us later than most migrating birds, not leaving us entirely before November. Their chief enemies in northern climates are cats, crows and squirrels. Cats should be taught to let birds alone (see lesson on cat) or should be killed. The crows have driven the robins into villages where they can build their nests under the protection of man. If crows venture near a house to attack the robins, firing a gun at them once or twice will give them a hint which they are not slow to take. The robins of an entire neighborhood will attack a nest-robbing crow, but usually too late to save the nestlings. The robins can defend themselves fairly well against the red squirrel unless he steals the contents of the nest while the owners are away. There can be no doubt that the same pair of robins return to the same nesting place year after year. On the Cornell Campus a robin lacking the white tip on one side of his tail was noted to have returned to the same particular feeding ground for several years; and we are very certain that the same female bird built in the vines of our piazza for seven consecutive years; it took two years to win her confidence; but after that, she seemed to feel as if she were a part of the family and regarded us all as friends. We were sure that during her fifth year she brought a new young husband to the old nesting site; probably her faithful old husband had been served for a dinner in some Tennessee hotel during the previous winter.


Young robins.   Their spotted breasts show their relationship to the thrushes.

Photo by Silas Lottridge.

Lesson X

The Robin

Leading thought—To understand all we can about the life and ways of the robin.

Methods—For first and second grades this work may be done by means of an extra blackboard, or what is far better, sheets of ordinary, buff, manilla wrapping paper fastened together at the upper end, so that they may be hung and turned over like a calendar. On the outside page make a picture of a robin in colored chalk or crayons, coloring according to the children's answers to questions of series "b".  Devote each page to one series of questions, as given below. Do not show these questions to the pupils until the time is ripe for the observations. Those pupils giving accurate answers to these questions should have their names on a roll of honor on the last page of the chart.

For third or higher grades the pupils should have individual notebooks in which each one may write his own answers to the questions of the successive series, which should be written on the blackboard at proper time for the observations. This note-book should have a page about 6x8 inches and may be made of any blank paper. The cover or first page should show the picture of the robin colored by the pupil, and may contain other illustrative drawings, and any poems or other literature pertinent to the subject. If prizes are awarded in the school, a bird book should be given as award for the best note-book in the class.

Observations by pupils—

Series a  (To be given in March).

1. At what date did you see the first robin this year?

2. Where did the robin spend the winter; did it build a nest or sing when in its winter quarters?

3. What does it find to eat when it first comes in the spring? How does this differ from its ordinary food?

4. Does the robin begin to sing as soon as it comes North?

Series b  (To be given the first week of April).

1. How large is the robin compared with the English sparrow?

2. What is the color of the beak? The eye? Around and above the eye?

3. The color of the top of the head? The back? The throat? The breast?

4. Do all the robins have equally bright colors on head, back and breast?

5. What is the color of the wing feathers?

6. What is the color of the tail feathers? Where is the white on them? Can the white spots be seen except during flight of the bird? Of what use to the robin are these spots?

7. Is there white on the underside of the robin as it flies over you? Where?

8. What is the color of the feet and legs?

Series c  (To be given the second week of April).

1. At what time of day does the robin sing? Is it likely to sing before a rain? How many different songs does a robin sing?

2. What note does a robin give when it sees a cat?

3. What sounds do the robins make when they see a crow or a hawk?

4. Does a robin run or walk or hop?

5. Do you think it finds the hidden earthworm by listening? If so describe the act.

6. Describe how a robin acts as it pulls a big earthworm out of the ground.

7. Do robins eat other food than earthworms?

Series d  (To be given by the middle of April).

1. At what date did your pair of robins begin to build their nest?

2. Where was the nest placed and with what material was it begun?

3. Can you tell the difference in colors between the father and mother birds? Do both parents help in making the nest?

4. How and with what material is the plastering done? How is the nest molded into shape? Do both birds do this part of the work?

5. Where is the mud obtained and how carried to the nest?

6. How is the nest lined?

Series e  (To be given a week after series d ).

1. What is the number and color of the eggs in the nest?

2. Do both parents do the sitting? Which sits on the nest during the night?

3. Give the date when the first nestling hatches.

4. How does the young robin look? The color and size of its beak? Why is its beak so large? Can it see? Is it covered with down? Compare it to a young chick and describe the difference between the two.

5. What does the young robin do if it feels any jar against the nest? Why does it do this?

6. Do the young robins make any noise?

7. What do the parents feed their young? Do both parents feed them? Are the young fed in turns?

8. Does each pair of robins have a certain territory for hunting worms which is not trespassed upon by other robins?

Series f  (To be given three days after series e ).

1. How long after hatching before the young robin's eyes are open? Can you see where the feathers are going to grow? How do the young feathers look?

2. How long after hatching before the young birds are covered with feathers?

3. Do their wing or tail feathers come first?

4. How is the nest kept clean?

5. Give the date when the young robins leave the nest. How do the old robins act at this important crisis?

6. Describe the young robin's flight. Why is it so unsteady?

7. How do the young robins differ in colors of breast from the parents?

8. Do the parents stay with the young for a time? What care do they give them?

9. If the parents raise a second brood do they use the same nest?

Series g  (To be given for summer reading and observations).

1. Do the robins sing all summer? Why?

2. Do the robins take your berries and cherries? How can you prevent them from doing this?

3. How does the robin help us?

4. How long does it stay with us in the fall?

5. What are the chief enemies of the robin and how does it fight or escape them? How can we help protect it?

6. Do you think the same robins come back to us each year?

Supplementary reading—Nestlings of Forest and Marsh, Wheelock, p. 62; Our Birds and their Nestlings, Walker, pp. 26, 37, 41, 42; True Bird Stories, Miller, pp. 37, 138; The Bird Book, Eckstrom, p. 248; Familiar Wild Animals, Lottridge; The History of the Robins, Trimmer; Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music, Mathews, p. 246; Birds in Their Relation to Man, Weed and Dearborn, p. 90; Songs of Nature, Burroughs, p. 94; Wake Robin, Burroughs; Audubon Leaflet No. 4.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Canary and the Goldfinch  |  Next: The Bluebird
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.