Appalachian Spring (repost)

American robin
Considered an emblem of spring, the American robin is a year-round resident in some parts of North America (Photo:Di Qiu, Creative Commons license)


[NOTE:  Life has been rather hectic of late—I’ve been preparing to present at the 9th Biennial Conference on University Education in Natural Resources in Ft. Collins, Colorado later this week, I turned in a guest post for one of the Car Talk blogs, and several projects at work have been screaming for some extra attentionso I decided to cut myself some slack and rerun a post from just over a year ago. At the time, Next-Door Nature was less than 4 months old so I didn’t have many readers; even so, I received a fair amount of positive feedback so it seems a good candidate for an encore. Thanks for your patience and continued support. I promise to have some new Next-Door Nature for you in the coming weeks.  ~ Kieran]


Walking near the central drill field on campus earlier this week, I happened upon the beginning of a mid-afternoon performance to celebrate the arrival of spring. The American Robin Ballet Company had taken their places on the lawn, dark taupe cloaks and carmine waistcoats vivid against the peridot-and-buff turf. They appeared frozen in place, waiting for the orchestra’s opening chords. Then all at once they began to move, not in sync but each using the same choreography.

Step… step… step… then a brief, brisk run… pliérelevé. Repeat.

Adagio (step… step… step)… allegro (step,step,step)… pliérelevé.  Repeat.

bird skeletonActually, if you think about it, it’s natural to see robins and other songbirds as dancers. For one thing, they are almost always on at least demi pointe—what you and I might call being on our tippy-toes. That’s because what we think of as the bird’s foot is actually only toes, and what we might initially think of as the knee is actually the ankle.

But for the corps de ballet in this show, function is as important as form. It may look like a dance but in fact it’s a hunt… or a very stylish way to shop for groceries. Take your pick.

The appearance of robins is considered by many to signal the arrival of spring; however, in some parts of North America robins are year-round residents. In winter they may form enormous nighttime roosts of over a hundred thousand individual birds. There is strength—and warmth—in numbers.

Male robin and fledgling (Photo: Jon Erickson, Creative Commons license)In spring and summer, after pairs have formed for pas de deux, both parents care for their offspring. However, females sleep on the nest, warming eggs or nestlings, while the males continue to gather each evening to sleep at the roost. As young robins gain their independence, they leave the nest and join the males at night.

Robins are territorial, but unlike many birds, males are more protective of their mate and nest site than of feeding grounds, which often overlap. So while cardinals and even hummingbirds are known for aggressive intraspecies defense of food resources, it’s not unusual to see groups of red-breasted dancers on a single grassy stage, even at the height of breeding season.

When a robin stops suddenly, stands stock still, cocks its head to one side, dips slightly, then rises for another series of steps, the audience may assume the bird is listening intently. But ornithologists believe robins are actually looking for signs of digging that reveal the location of a worm. They—the birds, not the ornithologists (well, maybe some of the ornithologists)—consume other invertebrates, such as snails and insects, and a wide variety of wild fruits. Exactly the kind of high-protein, high-fiber, low-fat diet ballerinas and danseurs need to remain light on their feet. I could almost hear Martha Graham…

Places everyone… and five, six, seven, eight… GRAND JETÉ!


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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author (ask and I promise you will receive). Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Di Qiu (male robin on branch); Jon Erickson (male robin feeding nestling). The bird skeleton drawing, from Illustrations of Zoology by W Ramsay Smith and J S Newell (1889), is in the public domain.

8 Replies to “Appalachian Spring (repost)”

  1. I enjoy re-posts from the archives, Kieran, and this is no exception. Since moving to Seattle, I’ve had the pleasure of watching — and listening to — lots of Robins year round, and I often see them congregating in the groups you describe. I didn’t realize that they were not as defensive of feeding sites as other birds. That they may be cocking their heads to look for worm burrows is fascinating to me. I will carry that knowledge with me as I continue to observe and learn more about them.

  2. It doesn’t matter what animal or bird you write about, it’s always a fascinating and interesting read, and these little robins are no exception . . . I loved it, thank you!

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