Gardening for Birds: Planting for American Robins

Author: Julianne Labreche, Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton

The American robin, with its brick-red breast, yellow beak, and grey wings, is a much-loved harbinger of spring and always a welcome visitor after our long, cold winters. Most sightings start just when the ice and snow are melting. These birds are well suited to city living and are often found foraging for earthworms in the turf grass that grows so abundantly in North American suburbs.

American Robin Diet

In addition to earthworms, their diet consists of insects, fruits, and berries. Although robins don’t visit my birdfeeder, they are interested in many of the shrubs and trees around the yard. They are not fussy eaters and consume many different kinds of fruits and berries, both native and non-native, including blueberries, mulberries, grapes, juniper, holly, and crabapple. Most robins migrate south, but some remain here throughout the winter months, even when food resources are scarce. Those remaining are sometimes seen in flocks; their range is determined by local food supplies and the weather.

If you want to attract robins to your property and you have a lawn, water it in the early morning. This will bring earthworms to the surface, making it easier for robins to forage. Watering the lawn during the early morning hours is also good for your lawn, letting moisture absorb deep into the roots and minimizing evaporation before the day becomes hot. These days, of course, gardeners are being encouraged to shrink the size of their lawns to plant native plants instead, explore alternative ground covers, or overseed turf with clover.

Bird Baths for Robins

Another way to attract robins is to provide a bird bath in your garden. A bird bath filled with clean water keeps them cool and removes oil and dust from their wings. My own bird baths, situated at varying heights around the garden, are refilled daily with fresh water and scrubbed clean with a stiff brush when needed. Robins make frequent trips to my bird baths to splash with apparent gusto and delight. In the winter months, a heated bird bath might attract robins as well as other overwintering birds.

To attract robins to your garden, grow these native plants:

Native Plants that attract Robins

Alternate-leaved or pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

This lovely large shrub or small tree, a native to eastern North America, is hardy in Ottawa and will grow in full sun or partial sun and shade. Although Pagoda Dogwood prefers moist, fertile, well-drained soil, it will grow in clay, loam, sand, or coarse soil. The pagoda dogwood is a useful native tree because it attracts a range of insect pollinators in spring with its creamy-white flowers and produces late-summer fruit popular with many bird species, including robins. The tree may also be used for nesting.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

This deciduous shrub is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are on separate plants. Both are needed for the female plant to produce vibrant red berries that can last through winter and into spring. Winterberry is a slow-growing, medium-sized shrub grows best in moist to wet, well-drained conditions. It grows in clay, loam, sandy, or organic soil.

Shadblow Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)

Serviceberry is a small to medium-sized deciduous tree native to eastern North America, extending to parts of Ontario. Multi-stemmed, it grows in full sun or in partial shade. In spring, its clusters of small, white flowers provide nectar for birds, and its reddish-purple berry-like fruit offers food in summer. In the fall, its leaves turn a vibrant shade of red. It is an ideal native tree, well suited to many suburban properties in Ottawa. Serviceberry fruit provides food for many songbirds.

Tip on Nesting Materials for Robins

Fill a suet feeder with nesting material for birds in spring. Include natural materials such as dried grass, twigs, moss, lichen, spider webs, animal fur, and feathers. Refrain from using yarn or string that may tangle baby birds or pet fur that may contain anti-flea and tick chemicals. Avoid dryer lint too, which may contain harmful chemicals and synthetic fibres. By leaving your garden uncut in winter and early spring, you will provide lots of natural nesting materials for the birds.

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