See more of the story

The sight or sound of a migrating robin signals the beginning of spring for many people.

Last year I saw the first returning migratory American robins in the Waconia area on March 19. Wintering-over robins, feeding on crabapples and other fruits, had been a fairly common sight in southern Minnesota throughout the last few winters, but for some reason, this year they have been quite rare. Knowing that migratory American robins are exceedingly vocal and prone to flight should help us know when we are seeing spring arrivals rather than birds that wintered here.

Although their return depends largely upon the weather conditions, robins are usually here by mid-March.

When robins come, they feed on wild berries such as those of the Virginia creeper and sumacs, but as soon as the frost is out of the ground they begin hunting and eating earthworms and insects. Robins are not listening for worms when they cock their heads to one side; they are looking for them and can see better that way because their eyes are far back on the sides of their heads.

The males return first. The first few, which may have spent the winter close by, arrive, and then other migrants from the south appear in large flocks and continue to pass through in successive waves until the middle of April. (The earlier resident birds will have settled down to domestic duties.)

The robins winter chiefly in the southern part of their breeding range, which includes the Gulf states and northeastern Mexico.

The male robin is more sharply colored than the female. His head is black, his back slate-brown, and breast a red-brown. The throat is white streaked with black, and he has a white ring around the eyes, and a yellow beak. The female is similarly marked but with a paler back and breast, and no black on her head. Robins are very territorial. They'll often fight their own reflections in windows.

Jim Gilbert's observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977.