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Brooklyn Bird Watch: April 7

American Robin. Scientific Name: Turdus migratorius

April 7, 2023 By Joseph Palmer
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Today, Brooklyn Bird Watch appropriately celebrates spring in the Northern Hemisphere with a Heather Wolf photo of the American Robin: the bird the Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls “the quintessential early bird.”

The Robin is America’s best loved bird, and it is the most famous. The American Robin is an abundant species.  There were 17.9 million sightings worldwide last year, and in Kings County alone there have been 65,361 Robin sightings so far this spring.

Last year, Brooklyn Bird Watch posted another Wolf photo of the American Robin on April 8. As pointed out in last year’s post, the classic picture of the Robin pulling the earthworm from the ground is based on reality (Robins can feel the vibrations of an earthworm moving underground and know that at some point the worm will have to surface for oxygen). Manicured suburban lawns are attractive and practical hunting grounds for Robins and so the birds have adapted to human landscapes.

In addition to being seen in many habitats like mountains, parks, forests, and lawns, I have also learned during the past year that this bird has over the years been slowly, and noticeably adapting to city life.

In an article titled “An Urban Success Story” written for the “Urban Birder” in 2017, conservationist Michael Fritz-Graham believes this trend of Robins “moving into New York City began in the early 2000s.

Fritz-Graham wrote: “Possibly the most famous and loved bird in the USA, the American Robin was once only a common transient and irregular winter visitor in inner urban Manhattan, only regularly nesting in the suburbs and in the largest city parks. New Yorkers would hear their beautiful caroling in the middle of the night all over Manhattan, echoing in the moonlight in March and April, but then they would all but disappear from late May until early autumn.

But not anymore! Their famous nests of mud and straw can be found in an astonishing list of places near human habitation. The list includes sheltered ledges, lamp-posts, busted chimneys, trellises, arbors, mailboxes, hanging flower pots, and even statues. They are second only to wrens for their outrageous choice of nest sites. Their beautiful nests are so sturdy that other animals often utilize them after they are abandoned. Everything from Mourning Doves and Common Nighthawks to insects, and even dormice, have used the Robin’s former homes for nesting and roosting.”

A reminder note to our readers: Brooklyn Bird Watch’s Heather Wolf also wrote an article (illustrated with her own photographs) for the same “Urban Birder” website titled “Birding Brooklyn Bridge Park

Another fascinating element related to the urbanization of the American Robin is that some specific genetic behaviors have been modified via the parameters of cityscapes.  In a 2016 study by Megan Shersby, published in the British magazine “Discover Wildlife,” it was found that not only are urban Robins less aggressive, their songs are also affected by urban lights and noise. A taxidermy Robin with recorded birdsong attached was placed in a city park in South Hampton (England) to study the Robin’s well known territorial aggression, and the real Robins proved to be less aggressive regarding the artificial territorial intruder, than Robins outside the city. The Robins that had territories closer to lit paths and noisy roads had become “lower down” in the bird’s dominance hierarchy. (Just for smiles: Are we absolutely certain they do not understand it was not a real bird?)

It has also been discovered that urban noise alters, or predicts the timing of the Robin’s song, leading them to primarily sing in the suburbs and cityscapes at night to avoid the noise.

In any event, our American Robin is here to welcome the spring with birdsong, and we are so glad for it.

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