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American Robin
Turdus migratorius
– Family
Authors: Sallabanks, Rex, and Frances C. James
Revisors: Vanderhoff, Natasha

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Male American Robin, OH, 5 March.
Figure 1. Distribution of the American Robin.

The American Robin is the largest, most abundant, and most widespread North American thrush. The presence of this rather tame songster in the backyard setting, together with its loud and musical voice, makes it one of the most easily recognizable birds in North America. Indeed, “robin red-breast” has been described as “America’s favorite songbird” (Sharp 1990), and its annual arrival in northern latitudes is an early sign of spring. Most people know the robin as a breeding bird of suburbs and farmland, where it forages in moist grass, often tugging at worms on garden lawns, and nests in shade trees.

The wide extent to which the robin ranges across the North American continent and thrives in both suburban and natural habitats is shared with few other species. The diet of the robin is also highly variable, changing from primarily soft invertebrates, especially earthworms, in spring and summer, to primarily fruit in autumn and winter. During the nonbreeding season, large flocks of hundreds or thousands of immature and adult birds migrate to lower elevations and latitudes, where they form roosting aggregations from which they track sources of berries. Not all robin populations are migratory, however, some spending the winter months close to their breeding grounds.

With a few exceptions, robin populations appear to be increasing or stable throughout North America. Thriving in suburban parks and gardens, the robin has often benefited from urbanization and agricultural development. Early studies of the nesting habits of the robin during the 1940s and 1950s still provide some of the best data available (Howell 1942, Tyler 1949, Young 1955). Other well-studied aspects of robin biology are its diet and ontogeny of foraging behavior (Wheelwright 1986, Vanderhoff and Eason 2007, Vanderhoff and Eason 2008), fruit choice (Jung 1992, Willson 1994, Lepczyk et al 2000), mechanisms of fruit selection (Sallabanks 1993a), seed dispersal (Renne et al 2002, Bartuszevige and Gorchov 2006, Zika 2010), vocalizations (Johnson 2006, Vanderhoff and Eason 2009b, Dowling et al. 2011, Seger-Fullam et al. 2011), geographic variation in size, shape, and plumage (Aldrich and James 1991), reproductive behavior (Rowe and Weatherhead 2007, Rowe and Weatherhead 2009, Rowe and Weatherhead 2011) and role in transmission of West Nile virus (Molaei et al. 2006, Savage et al 2007, Hamer et al. 2008, Molaei et al. 2008, Hamer et al. 2009, Kent 2009).

The robin has also been the subject of two books (Eiserer 1976, Wauer 1999). In his book What the Robin Knows, Young (2012) calls the robin “the most expressive of all birds, vocally and with its body language” and uses the robin as an example of a bird that can help reconnect Americans to wildlife through backyard learning.

Despite being one of the most ubiquitous birds in North America, the robin remains a species about which much still needs to be learned: e.g., regional differences in reproduction, territoriality, communication and migration, as well as the effects of humans on robin populations (landscape alteration, light and noise pollution).