Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Early Morning Robin Returns
April 5, 2008
Steve Grinley

     A few mornings ago, I was awakened by the song of a robin. Not unusual – but this bird was singing two hours before sunrise! This is the same bird that has been around for the past six or more years and reminded me of the following column I wrote back in 2003:

     My robin is back. How do I know that it is my robin? Because it was singing away at 4am! The sun doesn’t come up until after six and this bird is singing its heart out two hours earlier. It’s the same robin I had here last year that thinks he is a mockingbird because he sings in the middle of the night. I guess he’s pointing out two things to me. One, that spring is really here because he wasn’t here all winter. That means that the phoebes, swallows and wrens can’t be far behind. Second, that birds have high fidelity to the areas in which they nest, the area they know. Many, if not, most birds return to the same area every year. For most people, they welcome the return of their birds to their yard. I guess I wouldn’t have minded if my robin ended up in Groveland instead of Amesbury. I may have had an opportunity to get more sleep this spring.

     The robin doesn’t migrate that far, relatively speaking. It usually travels south to the mid-Atlantic or Southern states. Some robins are here all winter, but these are likely migrants from further north that found enough food supply, berries and other fruits, here to sustain them through the cold weather. Some neo-tropical migrants, such as orioles, flycatchers, rose-breasted grosbeaks and hummingbirds travel thousands of miles to Central and South America. They somehow find their way back to the same yard, or the same area each year. So if you have had robins, bluebirds, swallows, purple martins, phoebes, or wrens that nested in your birdhouses last year, they are likely to be back again this year. They may, in fact, pick the very same house as last year, or one close by. In fact, their offspring are likely to return to the same area as well and may choose another house in your yard or in the neighborhood.

     So with migration well underway and with the expectation that your birds will be returning again soon, it is time to make sure that your bird houses are clean and in good repair. Shelf nesters, robins and phoebes, are early arrivals and if you have a nesting shelf, be sure it is clean and ready for them. If you want to encourage them to a shelf, now is the time to put one up. Bluebirds are already looking for houses; so check your bluebird boxes to be sure they are clean or put them up if you took them down for the winter. Add more nesting boxes to encourage their offspring to nest in the area. Not far behind are the tree swallows that often compete for bluebird houses. Pairing house within 10-20 feet of each other may encourage bluebirds and tree swallows to nest side-by-side.

     Cousins to the tree swallows, purple martins arrive in April and early May. If you have had martins before, they will certainly return to the same housing complex. If you are trying to attract martins for the first time, it is the first year young, displaced from last year’s nest, that might start a new colony. They usually arrive in early May, so new martin houses should be up by then. However, one Plum Island resident had martins move into a house for the first time in late June, so don’t give up hope if they don’t occupy it right away. I’ve even had reports of one pair of tree swallows nesting in a martin house.

     Screech owls will start looking for nesting sites now and may take to a nest box if properly located. Flickers, members of the woodpecker family, return in April and will also nest in boxes. Carolina wrens are here through the winter and often start nesting in April, but house wrens don’t arrive until May when they begin to establish territories and begin nesting. Crested flycatchers are also cavity nesters. They arrive in May and they will return to a nesting box if it is available for them.

     Our permanent residents cavity nesters, which include red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches and chickadees will begin nesting in April and may have more than one brood, nesting into June and July. Putting birdhouses up now will ensure your best chance of getting any of these birds to nest. Of course, house sparrows and starlings are always around and ready to take over a nesting box at any opportunity.

     The neo-tropical migrants, hummingbirds, orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings and scarlet tanagers will arrive in May. Though they won’t nest in houses, having feeders available for these birds might encourage them to nest in your area since they do return to the same area every year. Knowing that migration is already in progress and that you are likely to have birds returning to your yard soon, now is the time to start preparing nesting boxes and feeders for their return.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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