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American Robin

Turdus migratorius

Order:
Passeriformes
Family:
Turdidae
Sections

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

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Sound selections for this account and the full catalog of American Robin sounds at the Macaulay Library can be accessed through the Audio Gallery.

Vocalizations

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Adult male singing.

© Ian Davies, Massachusetts, United States, 16 April 2013

Development

No vocalizations before hatching. Soon after hatching, nestlings develop begging calls for food (Smith and Montgomerie 1991a). Begging Call is structurally simple and quiet to begin with, but becomes louder as nestlings grow. Song acquisition and variation were examined earlier by Konishi 1965, Tsipoura 1985, and Sousa 1999. It has been shown experimentally (as well as in the wild) that young males both imitate song components of neighbors as well as invent new song elements (Johnson 2006b). Song elements were more similar among birds from the same location than in birds from different locations, suggesting some imitation. However, most elements of a robin's song (up to 85%) were found to be unique, indicating that individuals largely invent song elements. Both tape-tutored robins and those in the wild showed a large portion of unique song elements. The invention stage occurs both early in song acquisition as well as after robins establish themselves on territory (Johnson 2006b). The precise evolutionary and ecological reasons for this type of song development are still not known, but are likely related to life history traits and the wandering nature of robins (Johnson 2006b).

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Figure 5. American Robin sonogram.

Sonogram recorded at Franklin County, Ohio on 15 May 1982. Prepared by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics (BLB), Ohio State University, using a Kay Elemetrics DSP 5500 Sona-Graph (with an effective frequency resolution of 150 Hz and a 200-point FFT transform size) from BLB recording no. 15825.

Vocal array

The robin's song (Figure 5) is composed of a complex array of familiar syllables that have a liquid tonal quality (D. Kroodsma and C. Sousa, personal communications). When grouped together, these syllables form what is typically described as a clear, caroling cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up. This familiar song is perhaps best described as a short series of rather loud, rising and falling clear whistles. The clear, liquid parts usually have only one note, are continuous, sung with a consistent tempo, and are often grouped in phrases of up to 10 syllables (C. Sousa, personal communication). Less familiar Whisper Song also reported ( Young 1951, Young 1955) and has been described as " hisselly-hisselly " (Tyler 1949a). Whisper syllables are often heard at the end of a series of more familiar phrases, but can be interspersed within the phrase, and often have two notes sung together. Whisper syllables sound similar to vocalizations of the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), which are described as "ethereal" (C. Sousa, personal communication). Whisper syllables have both a greater range of frequencies and higher frequencies, compared with clear, liquid syllables. Both syllable types are easily distinguished aurally (C. Sousa, personal communication). Apparently, both sexes do sing (Wauer 1999a).

Male and female produce a variety of calls and notes. Most familiar call is a spirited chuck, cuck, or yeep, typically given as an alarm call in response to predators (see Behavior: Predation); this varies in pitch and volume from low to high and shrill. Another frequent call is chirr, repeated rapidly 5–10 times and growing in intensity and rising in pitch (Howell 1942). When given at a higher pitch, sounds like chee. Also described as a laugh by Saunders (1935 cited in Howell 1942). A third note is a high pitched, thin, whining whistle or seet call, not unlike the call of the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum; RS); this is given in response to aerial predators (Vanderhoff and Eason 2009a, see Behavior: Predation).

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Evening song
© Wil Hershberger, Maryland, United States, 29 March 1998

Anthropogenic noise has been shown to affect robins' song; as ambient noise increases minimum frequency increases (Dowling et al. 2012, Seger-Fullam et al. 2011). Maximum frequency and frequency range also increased significantly with increasing amounts of impervious surface (e.g., streets, parking lots; Dowling et al. 2012). More information is needed on the effect of noise on calls.

Geographic variation in vocal array not studied. More information needed.

Phenology

Males begin to sing late winter or early spring, at which time song possesses most of the volume, length, and richness of tone heard later in the spring. Early record of spring singing noted in southwestern Alberta on 12 Mar 1977 (McNicholl 1978b). Greatest song frequency occurs during the courtship period and continues until young hatch, at which time singing typically stops (Saunders 1935 cited in Howell 1942). Soon after young fledge, singing resumes. During molt (Jul–Aug), few individuals sing; for those that do, their songs become progressively shorter and quieter. Little singing during Sep, except for a brief renaissance at the end of the month, described as a secondary song period (Bicknell 1884). Most singing ceases by the end of Oct, but winter singing can be common (Howell 1942). Alarm notes given throughout year. Laughing chee notes are more frequent during winter months when flocking. Calls often heard right after a robin has taken off and is flying away; sometimes heard as large flocks leave fruiting trees or roosts (ENV). Seet call can be heard year-round (ENV).

Daily pattern of vocalizing

One of the first birds to begin singing in the morning (Howell 1942) and one of the last to be heard singing in the evening (Wright 1912b); hence has one of the longest period of song activity of the common songbirds. Average start time of singing on 18 d between 29 May and 26 Jul in Boston, Massachusetts was 03:04 h (Allen 1913). Two diurnal periods of song: early morning before sunrise and evening twilight following sunset. Sings the least close to noon. Timing of the last song of the day is related to light intensity and time of sunset (Shaver and Walker 1931). Duration of morning song increases with latitude; evening song tends to begin earlier at higher latitudes (Miller 1964 cited in Bondesen 1977).

Robins' crepuscular singing may be correlated with the physiology of their eyes, which are adapted to low-light environments, like dawn and dusk (McNeil et al. 2005). This may also make them more vulnerable to artificial light. In locations with more artificial light robins initiate morning song earlier than described in historical data, often during the nighttime as early as 1:11 AM at a site in Pennsylvania and 3:43 AM in Virginia (Miller 2006). The consequences of such behavior have not yet been assessed; this could have either a positive effect on fitness (more time during daylight hours for foraging) or negative effects (increased energy demands and increased risk of predation (Miller 2006).

Whisper syllables are most frequently heard during dawn and dusk choruses and during copulation attempts (C. Sousa, personal communication). Alarm Calls are given at any time during the day. Whine notes are more frequently heard in the middle of the day, especially during hot weather when individuals are generally inactive (RS).

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Singing adult male in Definitive Basic Plumage.

© Etienne Artigau, Quebec, Canada, 24 April 2011

Places of vocalizing

Typically sings from a high vantage point, such as a tree top, but known to sing even from the ground and edge of the nest (Howell 1942). Alarm Calls are given around the nest and prominent nearby perches. Also given, if necessary, when on the ground or in trees foraging. Churr and chee notes are given from any location, including while in flight. Seet notes are typically emitted from a motionless bird with its head tilted towards the sky ("skygazing"), either at the top-most limb of a tall tree or the ground (RS, Vanderhoff and Eason 2009a).

Repertoire and delivery of songs

Songs vary among individuals. Individuals may sing 6–20 different song types of the clear, liquid variety and some birds show preferences for the order in which songs are delivered. Males apparently have far more different types of Whisper Song than they do the familiar clear, liquid, caroling song (C. Sousa and D. Kroodsma, personal communications). Rarefaction methods have been used to estimate size of robin song repertoires (Peshek and Blumstein 2011).

Social context and presumed functions of vocalizations

Primary functions of song are to defend territories (Titus and Haas 1990) and to attract females (Hsu 1992). Males in riparian woodland sing more frequently than those in shelterbelts, where encounters among males are likely to be less frequent; song frequency is positively correlated with the number of neighbors (Titus and Haas 1990). Males sing more often before they acquire females, apparently to attract rather than stimulate them or to establish and maintain territories (Hsu 1992). Whisper Song is given during fights and courtship (Young 1951). Communication within groups is facilitated by the churr and chee notes. Soft chirp notes are given by the female apparently to attract the attention of males during courtship (Howell 1942). Nestlings give Begging Calls for food. Alarm notes function to scold predators, communicate with young during nesting season, and possibly to warn other birds. More information is needed on vocal communication in large wintering flocks.

Nonvocal Sounds

Aggressively bill-clicks when approached on the nest (J. M. N. Smith, personal communication). Other forms of communication include tail-wagging, a behavior often in conjunction with chuck and yeep vocalizations (ENV, see Behavior: Predation).

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