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American Robin

Turdus migratorius

Order:
Passeriformes
Family:
Turdidae
Sections

Distribution, Migration, and Habitat

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Figure 1. Distribution of the American Robin.

Breeding occurs locally in Florida south to the dashed line.

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eBird range map for American Robin

Generated from eBird observations (Year-Round, 1900-present)

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Migratory movements of the American Robin across North America.

This animation depicts weekly relative abundance estimates, with brighter color representing higher abundance. The data for this animation were generated using Spatio-Temporal-Exploratory Models to predict population relative abundance at specific times and locations by relating observations of American Robins from eBird to local environmental features derived from NASA remote sensing data. eBird (eBird.org) is a citizen science program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Distribution in the Americas

eBird data provide detailed looks at the range of this species throughout the year: eBird Year-round Range and Point Map for American Robin.

Breeding range

Figure 1. Throughout most of North America. Breeds north to western and northern Alaska (uncommon breeder on inland coastal plain; common breeder in Brooks Range; abundant breeder on south side of range; http://www.fws.gov/refuge/arctic/birdlist.html), northern Yukon (Old Crow; Sinclair et al. 2003), northern Northwest Territories (Coppermine, Angikuni Lake; Godfrey 1986), northern Manitoba (Churchill; http://birdatlas.mb.ca/mbdata/maps.jsp), northern Québec (Lake Minto, Feuilles River, but absent from northwestern Québec; Todd 1963a, Tardif and Lanoue 1996), and northern Newfoundland.

Breeds west to the Alaska Peninsula and south throughout North America to the southern U.S., including Kodiak Island, Alaska, and the Queen Charlotte Islands and Vancouver Island, British Columbia (Campbell et al. 1997b), but not on the Channel Islands or Farallon Islands, California (Small 1994).

In the U.S., breeds south to the White and Panamint Mountains of eastern California and the southern coastal plain in western California (San Diego County), with only scattered breeding in deserts of southeastern California (Small 1994), southern Nevada (but primarily in mountains and in the north; Floyd et al. 2007), northwestern and southeastern Arizona (primarily upland forests of north-central, and southern Arizona; typically absent from lower desert regions; Wise-Gervais 2005l), southern New Mexico (http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bba/index.cfm?fa=explore.ProjectHome&BBA_ID=nm2001), west-central and southeastern Texas (Tweit 2009), south-central Louisiana, southern Mississippi (Turcotte and Watts 1999), southern Alabama, and the panhandle and extreme northern peninsula of Florida, with scattered breeding in Florida south to Marion and Hillsborough counties (Hubbard 1978c,Hamel 1992, Robertson and Woolfenden 1992a, Small 1994). Absent from the lower coastal plains in Texas and Louisiana (Hamel 1992; http://txtbba.tamu.edu/species-accounts/american-robin/).

In Mexico, breeds in the interior and on adjacent slopes (1,500–3,500 m) from eastern Sonora and western Chihuahua, and from southeastern Coahuila south to eastern Oaxaca, west of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Phillips 1991, Howell and Webb 1995, Russell and Monson 1998). Isolated populations also breed in northern Baja California and (T. m. confinis) in the Sierra Victoria of southern Baja California (Howell and Webb 1995). Also recorded in summer on Herschel Island, Baffin Island, Aleutians (Amchitka), Pribilof Islands (St. Paul), in the desert lowlands of southern Arizona, Zacatecas, Nuevo León, and Coahuila, Mexico (Phillips 1991, American Ornithologists' Union 1998a), and in southern Florida (Fisk 1976).

See also Systematics: Subspecies.

Overwintering range

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Figure 9. Early winter density of the American Robin.

Based on data from the Christams Bird Count, 2003. Numbers show the number of individuals counted per 100 party hours in each region with CBC count circles.

Leaves most of Canada during winter months but regularly overwinters from southern Alaska and portions of southernmost Canada and the north-central U.S. south throughout the continental U.S., large areas of northern Mexico, and the western Caribbean. Occurs only rarely north of the regular overwintering range from south coastal and southeastern Alaska (Armstrong 1995a), the coast and southern interior of British Columbia, southwestern Alberta, northern Montana, northern South Dakota, central Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, southern Ontario, extreme southern Québec, southern, and eastern Maine, eastern New Brunswick, southern Nova Scotia, and southern (coastal) Newfoundland (eBird and Christmas Bird Count data; Figure 9).

Overwintering range extends south throughout North America to southern Florida, including the Florida Keys (irregular), the Gulf Coast, and southern portions of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California (including the Farallon and Channel Islands, in which the species does not breed).

Overwintering range extends south throughout northern Mexico to southern Sonora (but absent from much of central Sonora; Russell and Monson 1998), southern Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, extreme northern Veracruz, and throughout northern and central Baja California Norte, with scattered records from southeastern Veracruz and the northern Yucatán Peninsula; resident throughout breeding range in other parts of Mexico (Phillips 1991, Howell and Webb 1995).

Very rare and irregular during winter in Cuba and the northern Bahamas (Raffaele et al. 1998, Garrido and Kirkconnell 2000), and regular but uncommon in Bermuda (Amos 1991). Additional winter records from Dry Tortugas, Florida (Stevenson and Anderson 1994b), Belize (Jones 2003a), and Guadeloupe Island (Phillips 1991), Jamaica, Hispaniola (vagrant; 1 record; Latta et al. 2006), and Puerto Rico (Raffaele et al. 1998). Records from Guatemala require confirmation (Howell and Webb 1995).

Distribution Outside the Americas

Vagrant to Greenland (10, September–July), Iceland (2), British Isles (30), Belgium (January–February, 1965), Norway (October 1983), Sweden (24 April 1988), East Germany (19th century; April 1968, April 1972), West Germany (4), Czechoslovakia, and Austria (3; Lewington et al. 1991b).

Nature of Migration

Massive seasonal migrations occur across large areas of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico as individuals respond to the seasonal availability of soil invertebrates in spring and of fruit in fall. Conspicuous migratory flocks appear in early spring on temperate lawns, the classic harbingers of spring throughout much of the Midwest and eastern U.S. Restless migrant and overwintering flocks are seen in many new areas within the geographic range of the breeding population, where there is either damp soil or fruit resources. Overwintering numbers may vary significantly from year to year in many (especially northern) areas and flock size can range from a dozen to several hundred individuals.

Most robins breeding in the interior of Canada and the northern U.S. overwinter in the southern U.S. and Mexico, and individuals overwintering in more southern locations tend to migrate longer distances (Brown et al. unpubl.). Robins breeding in southern Mexico and Baja California Sur are non-migratory, and many birds in British Columbia, California, and Newfoundland find winter resources in forested slopes and valleys near their breeding sites.

A recent analysis of data from the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory found no differences between males and females, and recovery data indicate that most robins migrate 500–1200 km (Brown et al. unpubl.). According to the study, there has not been a shift northward in winter distribution or an increase in migration distance in recent years due to climate change. However, over the past two decades more and more robins are adapting a non-migratory strategy and travelling less than 100 km from their breeding grounds, some even seemingly defending territories in winter months (Brown et al. unpubl.).

Timing and Routes of Migration

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Figure 2. Annual cycle of molt, breeding, and migration.

Thick lines show peak activity and thin lines show off-peak.

Fall

See Figure 2 Fall migration is more complex than a simple shift southward. In eastern states, for example, local birds become increasingly gregarious and begin movements in the Boston, Massachusetts area in early August but have not all left the area until late October. Meanwhile, migrants pass through Maine in September (Tyler 1949a) and Massachusetts in November (Brewster 1906 cited in Tyler 1949a). In Maryland, peak of migration is 10 October to 1 November (Stewart and Robbins 1958); peak migration in Florida occurs in October (Stevenson and Anderson 1994b). Migrants arrive in Cuba and Mexico in November (18 November, Sonora; 26 November, San Luis Potosí), but Mexican populations breeding in the mountains have come to lowland areas by 1–15 October (Phillips 1991). Peak fall migration in Arkansas is mid-late October (James and Neal 1986). Peak hourly and daily passage rate at Lake Pontchartrain occurs in late November (Yaukey 2010).

In the northern interior of British Columbia, fall movements that begin in early to mid-August peak on Vancouver Island in November and early December, producing overwintering populations along the coast and valleys of the southern interior of that province. Meanwhile, individuals breeding on Vancouver Island leave in July and August for mountains of the southwestern U.S., Mexico, and perhaps Guatemala. Migrants from montane and alpine forests in California join lowland residents in October (Small 1994). In Alaska timing of fall migration differs significantly for adults and juveniles; median departure date is 6 September for juveniles and 23 September for adults (Benson and Winker 2001).

Spring

See Figure 2. From the mid-Atlantic states westward to Arkansas and southward through southeastern forests and sometimes cities, large wintering roosts may be established, but then the birds shift their concentrations with cold fronts or after nearby food resources are depleted. Thus, migratorius, which means “wandering” as well as “migratory,” is appropriate through the winter. In late Feb, large numbers migrate northward through Florida and the Gulf states toward breeding sites (Tyler 1949a). Migrants generally follow the northward progress of the 3°C average daily isotherm (Tyler 1949a), reaching Arkansas and Massachusetts by March (Brewster 1906 cited in Tyler 1949a, James and Neal 1986) and Michigan by early April (Brewer et al. 1991).

In the far west, T. m. propinquus that wintered in Mexico and Central America move northward through California in February. Many T. m. caurinus that wintered in coastal rain forests in Washington and British Columbia arrive in Alaska in late April or early May. Banding data from 1992–1998 in Fairbanks, Alaska, indicate median spring migration date of May 17, with a range of May 1–June 16 (Benson and Winker 2001).

In the Colorado Rockies, robins arrive significantly earlier, a full 2 weeks, at high-elevation breeding grounds, in response to changes in climate at lower elevations. This often occurs before snowmelt; the interval between initial arrival and snowmelt has increased by more than 2 weeks in recent decades (Inouye et al. 2000).

Routes

Analysis of specimens in museum collections can reveal the general wintering areas of the named subspecies (Phillips 1991; see Systematics: Subspecies). Even so, there is no evidence that individual robins return to individual overwintering territories as many other passerines do. The term “routes” does not really apply to robin migrations and there does not appear to be strong connectivity between overwintering and breeding grounds (Brown et al. unpubl.). Indeed, evidence from banding records shows that robins overwintering in a particular area originate from widely scattered areas to the north. Individuals recovered in Florida in winter are from as far west as North and South Dakota (Stevenson and Anderson 1994b); individuals banded in Maryland have been recovered during winter from North Carolina to Texas (Stewart and Robbins 1958). Moreover, some robins may be migratory one year and non-migratory the next, depending on local conditions and resources (Brown et al. unpubl.).

Migratory Behavior

Hand-reared fledglings develop a restlessness at dusk by the age of 13 or 14 days, just when wild birds begin to aggregate in roosts (Eiserer 1979). Thus, as juveniles they exhibit genetically programmed behavior that predisposes them toward flocking and subsequent migrations. Interspecific roosting aggregations containing many thousands of robins and blackbirds can occur during migration and in winter months (James and Neal 1986). Apparent nomadism during winter is in striking contrast to the habit of returning to previous breeding territories year after year. Migrating in flocks primarily during the day, birds strike television towers less often than do regular nocturnal migrants (Stevenson and Anderson 1994b). In spite of conspicuous migratory flocks, the full dynamics of the vast movements of some populations of robins and the local wanderings of others remain poorly understood.

Control and Physiology of Migration

Captive robins kept on a near-normal spring photoperiod of 12:12 to 16:8 hours develop migratory restlessness that lasts through both the daytime and nighttime hours (Kemper and Taylor 1981). More information is needed on migratory physiology as well as navigation.

Habitat in Breeding Range

Frequents forest, woodland, and gardens, breeding primarily where lawns and other short-grass areas are interspersed with shrubs and trees, such as residential areas, towns, farmyards, and parks.

In the northwestern U.S. and southwestern Canada, robins breed in both residential areas and riparian areas. In British Colombia, for example, robin abundance increases as one approaches streams and rivers (Shirley 2005). Likewise, in Utah robins are commonly found in riparian habitats (Norvell et al. 2005). Throughout much of the west robins are taking advantage of habitat alteration along many rivers and streams. Conversion of riparian forests to pastureland and urban development has led to an increase in robins, which unlike many other birds can take advantage of multiple habitats, including more natural deciduous habitat as well as agricultural and urban lands (Tewksbury et al. 2002).

Studies also indicate that robins prefer early-successional forest after cutting or fire (Martin 1973e, Hutto 1995c, Sallabanks 1995). For example, in northern California robin abundance was higher in silvicultural areas with low structural diversity and on burned plots (George and Zack 2008). In Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)–western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) forests of southwestern Washington, the species prefers partially logged stands (commercial thins) over clear-cuts and old growth. In managed grand fir (Abies grandis) forests of northeastern Oregon, prefers early- and late-seral forest over mid-seral structural classes (RS). Similarly, in coastal hemlock forests of British Colombia, prefers vine maple (Acer circinatum) gaps (Saunders et al. 2006). In mixed-conifer forests of west-central Idaho, breeds from low-elevation (600 m) dry ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) habitat types to high-elevation (2,300 m) subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) types, but primarily in younger growth stages than old growth (RS). In the Sierras of California robins also occur in ponderosa pine forests, often nesting in canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepsis) (Purcell and Drynan 2008).

In the southeastern U.S and Midwest many robins occur near human settlements and show a tendency to prefer edge environments, including those of forests and agricultural lands, such as cornfields (Best 2001, Vora et al. 2003, ENV). Robins are also found in spruce-fir forests in the highest parts of the Appalachian Mountains. where openings or grassy areas are nearby (Hamel 1992). In West Virginia, robins establish territories at intermediate elevations and prefer shrubby edges near roads and trials or areas near water (Dellinger et al. 2007b).

In many areas of the country, robins are becoming increasingly associated with suburban and exurban landscapes. In Virginia, considered an indicator species for exurban development, typified by low density development, patchy forests and sprawling parks for recreation (Suarez-Rubio et al. 2011) In urban areas, such as Denver, Colorado, robins are observed more often in riparian areas with adjacent grassy lawns than in forested areas (Nelson and Nelson 2001). The development of human settlements as far north as the Canadian arctic is allowing robins to extend breeding to previously hostile environments (Staniforth 2002).

Habitat in Migration

Similar to breeding range.

Habitat in the Overwintering Range

In resident populations, wintering habitats are similar to breeding habitats, but most populations migrate to more southerly latitudes and/or lower elevations (see Distribution and Habitat​: Timing and Routes of Migration), where they overwinter in forests. In the western U.S., the species forms loose flocks that forage on fruit-bearing plants in agricultural lowlands (Sallabanks 1992a). In central Oregon it is the most abundant bird in old-growth juniper and shrub-steppe habitats, often in large flocks of up to 350 (Reinkensmeyer et al. 2008). In the southeastern U.S., the species overwinters mostly in bottomland woods near fruiting trees; generally in moist woods in early winter, but in late winter commonly on lawns, pastures, and other open places (Hamel 1992). Commonly found in habitats dominated by invasive fruiting plants, including bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), holly (Ilex spp.), Chinese tallow (Sapium sebiferum) and camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora) (McCusker et al. 2010, Zika 2010, ENV).

Historical Changes to the Distribution

Size of breeding range has increased progressively with establishment of farmlands and homesteads, followed by the increasing area devoted to suburban parkland in the U.S. and Canada.

Southeast

During the 20th century, breeding range has gradually extended from Piedmont of South Carolina into coastal plain of southeastern states. Apparently, after several years, watered lawns and lawn-like pastures develop the densities of soft invertebrates the robin seeks in the breeding season (Odum and Burleigh 1946). In 1932, southern limits were northern Mississippi, northern Alabama, northern Georgia, and upper South Carolina. Species now breeds regularly in suburban sites along Gulf Coast and in Tallahassee and Jacksonville in northern Florida. Has bred in Ocala and Tampa in central Florida (Stevenson and Anderson 1994b). Absence of muddy worm castings used elsewhere for nest-building may limit further southward expansion in Florida, even in parkland areas, perhaps because the soil is too sandy for the common earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris).

Great Plains

Robins moved in during the early 1900s, although not immediately (Walcott 1974), as settlers planted trees and introduced earthworms into prairie soils in Kansas and elsewhere in the Great Plains (Tyler 1949a, Phillips 1991) and as neighborhoods developed (Barrows 1912b). First record for southern Arkansas (Union County) in 1955 (James and Neal 1986).

Southwest and California

Range extended southward and westward into Texas (Peterson 1960), Arizona, New Mexico, and California (Phillips 1991) by the 1950s, with nesting in Tucson by 1965 and Phoenix by 1980 (Monson and Phillips 1981a) as well as Blythe and Yuma (Rosenberg et al. 1991). Range also spreading in southern Coahuila (Phillips 1991). No breeding records for the San Francisco Bay area, California, before 1915, but then irrigation allowed earthworms to come nearer to surface and made area suitable for breeding robins (Storer 1926). It took 25 yr for robins to become established in Pasadena, California, after it became a residential city (Van Rossem 1942e).

Fossil History

Numerous late Pleistocene and Holocene records from Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Missouri, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, California (references in Lundelius et al. 1983), and New York (Steadman 1998).

Recommended Citation

Vanderhoff, N., P. Pyle, M. A. Patten, R. Sallabanks, and F. C. James (2016). American Robin (Turdus migratorius), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.462