The American robin is widely distributed in North America and Central America - the most widely distributed thrush of the Americas. These birds have been recorded in every single US state except Hawaii, and every southern Canadian state.
A highly adaptable and flexible bird, the American robin is free-roaming and lives in both wild and urban habitats. Here, we’ll be answering the question: do American robins migrate?
American robins do migrate, but their migratory decisions are highly sensitive to environmental conditions. While many American robins in Canada and Alaska are highly likely to migrate, some remain in cold environments all year round. American robin migration is generally motivated by the availability of invertebrates and fruit.
The rather sporadic migratory habits of this bird are testament to its adaptability. For example, American robins have been observed feeding in Newfoundland and British Columbia right through the winter. Meanwhile, others head as far south as Mexico!
Studies show that American robins are migrating less in recent years and don’t migrate as far as they once did. Most migrations see them travel just 100km or less from their breeding grounds.
Of course, there is much more to learn about the migratory habits of this wonderful bird. Read on to find out!
One of the reasons for American Robin migration is the abundance of food in their habitat
In August, American robins migrate from Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, Saskaketchan, and Ontario. However, on Vancouver Island, robins have been observed migrating as early as July.
From August to September, robins across Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, Oregon, North Dakota, and Michigan become more gregarious in preparation for migration.
In Maryland and Florida, migration peaks around late October. Predictably, the further south you get, the later robins often choose to migrate. Robins in the interior states of Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and Utah migrate towards Mexico, but many populations disperse just a small distance or don’t migrate at all.
There’s migratory activity in almost every state at some point in winter, but it’s important to stress that not all robins migrate. Some subspecies of American robins are more strongly migratory than others.
American Robin taking a bath in Central Park, New York City
Before migration, American robins gather up in flocks. Some flocks number just a dozen or so birds, but others can reach the hundreds. American robins migrate in small stages, and many will only travel as far as they need to find food.
American robins become more gregarious at the start of fall or early winter. These birds are much more territorial in the breeding season, but they tend to congregate together to feed once these territorial instincts begin to wane.
Moreover, not all individual American robins migrate every year. They’re also not known to form ‘routes’ or travel down certain passages (e.g., many birds follow the Mississippi Valley or coastline).
However, there is some evidence suggesting that American robins follow the 37-degree isotherm, a line, or weather front, where the average 24-hour temperature is approximately 37 degrees Fahrenheit. This points them towards thawing ground, which indicates insect and invertebrate life.
All in all, American robins don’t possess strong migratory habits - they just migrate as and when they please!
An American Robin eating holly berries in winter in Union Bay, British Columbia, Canada
There’s great variability in how far American robins travel during migration. Some ornithologists argue that robins are migrating less than they used to, and that they typically travel less than 100km from their breeding range.
American robins are capable of long-distance flight, however. Some birds from southern Canada end up in Cuba and Mexico. Others from interior US states end up further still, possibly as far south as Guatemala.
American robins don’t always migrate, but when they do, they end up all across the USA, Mexico, and even deeper into Central America. As a result, American robins have been recorded in all southern Canadian states and every US state except Hawaii.
These are exceptionally adaptable birds that are happy wherever they can find food in abundance. Some travel long distances, whereas others disperse short distances.
Some subspecies of the American robin are more strongly migratory than others. For example, the Eastern robin (T. m. migratorius) travels from southern Canada, and the northeast USA to Bermuda, the Bahamas, and eastern Mexico. In addition, members of this subspecies have been found in Europe as rare vagrants.
American Robin perched on a block
American robins begin migration as early as August, though some leave in July and others much later, in October and November.
Most migrations are complete by the end of November, which suggests that migration takes a couple of weeks to a month at most.
American robins likely don’t complete their entire migration in one go. Instead, they track warmer temperatures to stay ahead of frosts. This ensures that they can access food from the thawed ground, such as earthworms.
American robins migrate in bits and pieces - this isn’t a strongly migratory species. With that said, some populations of robins heading the maximum migratory distance from Canada and Alaska to Central America complete large portions of their journey in one go.
American Robin taking off from a perch
Like most birds, American robins are territorial in the breeding season, spending most of their time with their partner.
At the end of summer, this changes. American robins become more sociable and gregarious prior to migrating, and many band together in large flocks. Flocks might number a handful of birds, but some range into the hundreds or even the thousands.
Not all American robins migrate at all. So, while these birds are a migratory species, their migratory instincts aren’t as strong as many other species.
Depending on food availability, American robins can stay as far north as Canada all year round. However, some subspecies are thought to be more likely to migrate than others, including the Eastern robin (T. m. migratorius) and Newfoundland robin (T. m. nigrideus). Both of these subspecies occupy the northerly regions of the species’ range.
These particular subspecies can migrate as far as the Bahamas and Bermuda, which is perhaps why some have been found as vagrants in Europe! There are some 20 recorded sightings of American robins in the UK. Other vagrants have been recorded in Jamaica, Greenland, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and Belize.
American Robin singing early in the morning
American robins don’t always migrate in winter. Those that don’t remain in their territories, or disperse short distances to find food.
Those who do migrate can head practically anywhere in the USA and some of Central America, extending to Guatemala, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Bahamas.
American robins return to their breeding territories sometime before spring gets into full swing. By summer, their breeding territories are well-established.
Robins returning further north leave their wintering grounds earlier, flying back to Canada and the north USA states as early as January.
Some American robins time their returns based on snowmelt, and head north incrementally as the ground thaws.
American Robin perched on the end of a branch during the fall
American robins often maintain the same territories, but they don’t always come back to the same place every year.
These are flexible and adaptable birds that only live for around two years or so - they’re generally content with inhabiting practically anywhere they can survive and breed. However, many American robin breeding grounds are well-maintained, especially in the north.
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