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Spring 2012

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

American robin, Turdus migratorious

First morning song of American robins in Lyon Park


American robin first song in Lyon Park, Arlington, Va.

*The half-hour before sunrise or after sunset; car headlights are generally not required.

March 27, 2012

American robin song

It takes a night owl
to beat the early bird

People rising very early in the morning may hear the pre-dawn singing of American robins. Urban robins crank up their loopy warbling music even earlier than their rural counterparts.

Although city noise might play a role in that — an early start helps urban birds avoid the din of rush hour — it's more likely that they are responding to light pollution.

In 2003, biologist Mark W. Miller studied robin song starting times in Arlington's Lyon Park neighborhood and compared them with data collected from the same location in 1929.

In '29 the first robin songs began about 45 minues before sunrise, but 74 years later, when Lyon Park nights were awash in electrical light, robins tended to break their silence more than an hour earlier, often before any hint of dawn.

Miller's study also included robins near the White House, in an area with even higher levels of artificial light. Those robins began singing about 3 hours earlier than the '29 Lyon Park robins.

Miller said that the starting times for White House robins might be even earlier, because sometimes they were already singing when he arrived to monitor them.

SOURCES: Mark. W. Miller, University of Alaska at Fairbanks; "Apparent Effects of Light Pollution on Singing Behavior of American Robins," the Condor; Biology Letters, the Royal Society