We’re all familiar with the cheery song of the American robin. For many of us, it’s one of the first signs of spring. Donald Kroodsma, in his excellent book, The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong, describes the robin’s song as clear caroling with a variable “cheerily cheer-up cheerio.”
But it’s not always such merry themes.
As I headed down the alley early one morning, taking Chance on his morning constitutional, our neighbor George approached me across his back yard.
“Why are those robins complaining at me? Every morning they’re out here squawking at me. They’re really noisy!”
The robins were doing their “piik, piik, piik.”
“Well,” I said, “maybe there’s a cat nearby. Maybe they’re scolding the cat.”
We looked around. No cat.
I couldn’t come up with any other explanation on the spur of the moment and George went back to his house, grumbling.
Each morning after that, I paid attention to what the robins were doing around George’s yard, and I found that they were scolding without George present. Were Chance and I setting them off? No, they were squawking well before we got near them.
I wondered if this was a territorial dispute between birds that didn’t involve George, Chance or me at all. Robins do have small breeding territories that they tend to defend fiercely.
It’s possible that the alley, with its power lines on which the robins like to sit, is a border between two territories and the robins are in a squawk-fest, each trying to persuade the other to “get outa town.”
In fact, as the week went on, the rivalry ended. There was no more piik-ing at each other. One of them must have backed down and found another territory.
Robins seem to have quite a lot of calls they use for complaint and protestation. Kroodsma describes several of them. There’s the low, mellow “tut…tut…tut,” the endless “qui-qui-qui” that rises then falls, as well as the sharp, explosive “piik … piik … piik” that George and I heard that morning.
My birding buddy Val had an interesting encounter with a complaining robin. Val maintains a bluebird trail on a local municipal golf course. That involves checking each box regularly to see how nesting is proceeding.
As she approached one of the nest boxes, she noticed a robin in a nearby shrub, right at eye level, giving her a terrific scolding. As she lifted a screwdriver to open the door of the box, a chickadee flew out of the hole!
She wondered if the robin was warning the chickadee and if the chickadee understood the robin’s alarm call. Many birds and animals seem to understand the alarm calls of other species. It makes sense and keeps everyone safer.
The robin’s hawk alarm is “seeee.” If you hear one or more robins doing that, scan the area for a hawk, most likely a Cooper’s hawk. That’s one that could take a robin.
But back to the robin’s singing. A few years ago, early in the spring, we were birding at Long Lake Regional Park in New Brighton. There was a robin sitting in a small tree in the parking lot. It would sing a bit and then seem to be quiet for a short time.
Our friend Julian told us to listen for the “whisper song” that followed the main song. As we came a little bit closer to the bird, we heard it sing a brief passage and then repeat its song much more quietly, as though it was whispering. This seems to be a spring phenomenon; perhaps the bird is practicing to itself.
All summer long, if you listen to robins singing, you’ll often hear a brief, high-pitched, quiet note or two after a bold, main phrase. Kroodsma calls these whispered notes the “hisselly” pattern. I don’t quite hear it. I just call them gloss notes.
Robins seem to be the first birds awake and singing in the morning and the ones who get the last word in at the end of the day. A.C. Bent, who wrote life histories of most of the species of North American birds, writes in his volume on thrushes, kinglets and their allies (the American robin is a thrush) that we can expect these morning and evening serenades to end about the middle of July. So listen while you can.
William Brewster did a study on summer robin roosts in 1890. Bent reports that Brewster was “impressed by the element of drama in the great wave of robins’ song which sweeps overhead every morning during the breeding season in the darkness before daylight, and continues on, westward, keeping pace with the sun, but beginning far in advance of its light, as it moves across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”
What a gorgeous picture.
Clay Christensen lives and writes in Lauderdale. His book, The Birdman of Lauderdale, is available at local bird stores, bookstores and BirdmanBook.com.