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Robins Will Return to the Same Nest Site

Dear Bird Folks,

Every year a robin builds a nest under my deck. Do you think it’s the same robin each year or is it one of its offspring? Also, during last week’s storm I tried to protect the nest from the rain so it would stay dry. Do you think that was a good idea?

– Nancy, Barnstable, MA


You’re sweet, Nancy,

You would not believe the number of calls I get from people complaining about birds building a nest too close to the house. They whine about the birds being messy, or the birds might attack them or they’re concerned the birds might see them through the window as they’re getting out of the shower. (Believe me, no bird wants to see a naked human, except maybe a vulture.) But not you. You not only like having robins under your deck, but you run outside with an umbrella, or something, in the middle of a rainstorm to make sure the birds stay nice and dry. That’s impressive, especially since I can’t even remember to shut my car windows when it rains.

To answer your first question first, I think it’s very likely that your robin is the same bird that nested under your deck last year. Robins have an extremely high rate of nest fidelity. I know “nest fidelity” sounds like an investment group, but it actually means that robins regularly return to the same breeding site each season. Returning to the same location each spring is a fairly common habit with birds, but it wasn’t really understood until the early part of the last century. Oh sure, folks knew birds returned in the spring but they didn’t know (and probably didn’t care) that it was the same birds year after year after year. Then Oliver Austin, who lived on what is now Mass. Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, started banding nesting terns. It didn’t take long for old Oliver to figure out that the same terns not only returned to Wellfleet each spring, but the birds often laid their eggs in the exact spot (on the ground) as they did the year before. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a breakthrough, but in those days it didn’t take much to create excitement, especially in Wellfleet.

When you think about it, terns returning to the same sand spit each spring is not really so surprising. I mean, they are beach birds, so where else are they going to go, the mall? But robins have few habitat restraints. They can nest on a remote mountaintop, in a city park or in an ornamental shrub right next to the mall. So why are they under a porch in Barnstable? It’s all based on success. Inexperienced, crazy young robins are likely to build a nest just about anyplace. I’ve seen photos of nests on dryer vents, on horse saddles, on truck tires and in old hats. None of these locations sound like they should be particularly successful, but if it works the first time, it’s likely to be repeated. If mother robin is able to raise her babies, it means she has picked a location that has enough food nearby and is safe from predation, and that’s all she cares about. She’s not proud. It doesn’t bother her if her nest is in an old hat. If she’s successful, she will use that hat over and over, and she will keep using it until she either has a nest that fails, or until some old guy decides he wants his hat back. In fact, she might not be using the hat-nest this year, because I think I just waited on a guy whose hat looked like birds have been living in it for years.

Your question about offspring using their parents’ former nesting location is a tricky one. Certainly the parents aren’t going to let their kids muscle them out of a prime nesting site. But baby robins do tend to return to the same general locality in which they were born. So when the parents have passed on (flown to the big birdfeeder in the sky), it’s quite possible that one of the kids might occupy their old spot…once all the paperwork is squared away. I have a nest box near my bedroom window that has been occupied by chickadees every spring for the past twenty years. Chickadees are perfect birds, and even though they eat the magical birdseed I sell, they don’t live for twenty years. So there is no way this year’s birds are the original pair. Yet, they could be related to the originals. But without putting leg bands on them, I don’t know for sure. Maybe I’ll invite Oliver Austin over to band them for me sometime. Although that could be a problem. If I do the math right, Oliver should be around 147 years old. That means he’s probably not with us anymore, even if he ate the magical birdseed I sell.

About protecting your robin’s nest from the rain: Remember what I said about birds only returning if they were successful? Rain or shine, your deck has provided exactly what your robins need. Besides, birds are quite capable of weathering most rainstorms. The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History has a wonderful webcam that shows live images of their Osprey nest. The day after we saw the chicks hatch another mega-rainstorm arrived. On the webcam we could see the mother lying totally flat on the nest, tightly covering her babies until the rain subsided. So protecting the nest from the rain isn’t necessary. But even if you did protect them, as my Jewish grandmother (if I had one) used to say, “It wouldn’t hurt.”

Enjoy your robin’s nest, Nancy. Whether they are the original birds or not, the important thing is that you appreciate them and are not upset that they are living under your deck or that they might see you coming out of the shower. However, you probably should pull your shades down anyway. You never know which direction the Museum’s webcam is pointing.