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Robins return to our yards

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WBFO photo by Sharon Osorio
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Robin's nest.

By Sharon Osorio

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wbfo/local-wbfo-960427.mp3

Buffalo, NY –

Robins are making a comeback to our yards and neighborhoods. As WBFO's Sharon Osorio reports, you might be surprised by how the breeding pairs split their parental duties ... and where they've been all winter.

"Although some of them migrate--they do fly south, some of them go to Florida, Texas, sometimes as far south as Mexico actually, many of our robins really do stay here all winter long but you don't see them very often they'll congregate and roost. Up to almost a quarter of a million birds will hang out together in an area where they can find food," says Robin Foster of Kenmore, the education coordinator for Audubon New York.

She has seen those winter roosts herself, although not as large, in spots like the Oak Hill Trail area at ArtPark in Lewiston. Angela Berti from New York State Parks says you can also spot them around Niagara Falls.

"We do have wintering robins that do like to spend the winters up here in the Niagara region, and primarily you can find them at De Veaux Woods and Whirlpool State Park," says Berti. "We have reports that we have seen up to 15 at a time hanging out and enjoying the snow."

Berti says robins choose to spend their winters in wooded areas with access to plenty of berries.

"Contrary to popular belief, they do eat more than just worms," she says.

Now that they're leaving their winter homes, they change their diet back to eating creatures like worms. But it's the increased amount of daylight, not the temperature, that brings robins back out. Their return begins with claiming a good spot for a nest.

"The males are out looking for territory, and a lot of what you're seeing--the cat and mouse games--are males duking it out for who's going to get this territory," says Foster. "They all want the prime real estate because, very soon, the females are going to come out. Some of them may already be doing this. And you'll see the males up in the trees, signing their little hearts out, and they'll do this display-- they'll fan their tail and put their tail over their head, kind of "look at me," to attract the girls. Once the females pick the male that they think is going to be the best male for them to mate with, they'll set up a nesting site on that male's territory."

"Then the female builds the nest," Foster adds. "She builds it all herself. She spends up to six days building the nest out of sticks and twigs and little rootlets and moss and mud."

You might see the same robins this year in the same spots as last year.

"The pairs will stay together for the breeding season, and sometimes the same pair will stay together for up to three seasons, so often it's the same pair from the year before coming back," says Foster. "They won't necessarily use exactly the same nest. Sometimes those nests have parasites in them or they might be unstable from being blown around in the wind all winter, but they will come back to the same area and often you'll see two nests right next to each other."

Then it's time to lay the eggs.

"Most people are familiar with that beautiful blue robin's eggs," says Foster. "And they'll lay usually an average of three or four eggs in the nest."

The female will incubate the egss by herself while the male brings her food while she's incubating. "Once the babies are hatched, the two parents will share the responsibility of taking care of those young, and they'll take turns feeding," says Foster.

When the baby robins are 14 to 16 days old, the nestlings turn into fledglings. Time to learn how to fly, although this part may be the hardest for humans to watch.

"You'll see these little robins," says Foster. "They're a little fluffier and they have black speckles all over their breasts. They'll hop around on the ground and people will often think they've broken their wing, they've fallen out of the nest, they don't seem to be able to know how to fly. This is totally natural and totally normal for them. When the young decide to take this first flight, and it's more like a glide down to the ground, they don't really have the muscle to get back off the ground again, so they'll hang out on the ground usually about three days. Their parents continue to bring them food on the ground, and usually when you see that from a distance --not too close--you'll see the adult bird bring food to the babies on the ground. That's almost always the male. The female is still back up in the nest laying another set of eggs. They'll usually have two, sometimes even three, broods per breeding season."

Foster says it is best to leave the little robins alone, to let nature take its course. But you will not make their parents reject them if you have to handle them.

"Birds have almost no sense of smell," Foster says. "If you go and pick up a baby bird and put it back later on--sometimes even a day or two later--the parents will absolutely still accept them and still feed them."

And next year, those babies will join the search for a good place to build a nest to have their own babies.