Thanks to its distinctive plumage and pleasing song, American robin is one of the most recognizable and beloved songbirds in North America. Not only this, this songster is also the largest and most abundant North American thrush.   

American robin belongs to the family of thrushes called Turdidae. During earlier colonial era, people started calling this bird ‘robin’ due to the rich rufous underparts, making it similar to European robin. But, in reality, European robin comes from a different family of passerine birds, called Muscicapidae.

American robins are social birds and active mostly in daytime. They do not swim or climb. But they make short, rapid steps or hop on the ground and pull the earthworm from the soil. Robins do sunbathe, however, especially in freezing winter months when they rely on fruits only. In spring and summer just before the break of day, we often hear rich caroling of American robins. During spring season, they are one of the first birds to start laying eggs. Robins were also found to feed the young of other birds, even though it is rare. Now let’s dive deep into what do robins eat in winter and summer.

Amercian robin extracting earthworm - what do robins eat

American Robin (Turdus migratorius) pulls a large earthworm out of its burrow, which requires strong legs. Location: Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States. Photo © Ryan Schain / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

What Do Robins Eat in Winter and Summer?

By and large, robins gobble up soft-bodied and hard-bodied invertebrates as well as fruits (especially berries, both wild and cultivated). They are quite flexible in their diet and may eat whatever is readily accessible. 

Normally, robins feed on terrestrial and foliage invertebrates near edge of shrubs or tree lines. However, they have highly variable diet throughout the year. During spring and summer seasons, they mainly snack on earthworms and such other soft-bodied invertebrates.

As non-breeding season arrives, tens of thousands of robins migrate to lower elevations in search of fruits.

These songbirds move leaves and twigs away with the help of their bills in order to probe the soil for prey.  

Robins tend to migrate in large communal roosts during spring and fall. In spring, these songbirds flock toward areas with an abundance of soil invertebrates. Likewise during fall season, they go to places where fruit resources are plentiful. However, robins of southern Mexico and Baja California Sur do not migrate at all. 

Robins capture their prey during well-lit sunny environments. Juveniles feed on worms in very moist soils. Some of these insects include snails, grasshoppers, grubs, spiders, beetle and caterpillars. 

If you really want to attract a robin in your garden (which is always a cheerful sight), you may want to offer them some insects and fruits. They especially love to eat mealworms but also seeds, crushed peanuts, raisins, suet, and sunflower hearts.

In Alberta, robins are widely distributed in locations having a large population of invasive earthworms. 

In Illinois, during winter months, robins seem to prefer eating bush honeysuckle more than other shrubs. 

Since earthworms often form the main component of their diet, robins employ a combination of techniques to capture them. First off, a robin uses in what is known as ‘Head-Cocking’; in which one eye focuses on the spot for a few seconds, and then it rotates itself and flexes its head (for getting the other eye to focus on the target as well). Next, the bird uses a technique called “Bill-Pounce”; in which the bird quickly forces its bill into that very spot where it detects the prey. 

Robin in search for prey - what do robins eat

American Robin (Turdus migratorius) visually searches and listens for earthworm prey in grass. Location: Codington, South Dakota, United States. Photo © Brian Sullivan / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab

The bird runs in brief spurts in order to capture faster invertebrates. If the prey is large, these birds often beat it against the ground to prevent it from moving. 

The flying insects are not easy to catch in vegetation. For that, they use complex flights to capture them.

Robins seem to prefer short-grassed areas for foraging.

Apart from invertebrates and fruits, robins may also feed on some unusual prey items such as small snakes, damselfly nymphs, fish, skinks, shrews, and even frogs.

Adult robins feed larger prey to their young ones. However, they normally eat small prey by themselves.

About 60 percent of the year-round diet of robins consists of fruits and berries (especially wild juicy berries). Most of the fruit consumption occurs in winter, however. Insects make up the remaining 40 percent of their diet.

Some of the favorite fruits for robins include  sumac fruits, juniper berries, chokecherries, dogwood, and hawthorn.

Robins often consume fruits using picks and gleans but they may also take them on the wing too. 

During cold winter months, and before nightfall, the rate of fruit consumption increases significantly. It is not surprising to hear robins dying during freezing months (despite the abundance of fruits) because they pack so much fruits into their esophagus. 

According to the U.S. Biological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, robins fed on fruits of more than 50 genera and invertebrates representing more than 100 families. 

They tend to consume fruits more during fall and winter months, as compare to other seasons. 

During summer, robins usually feed more on Coleoptera than any other insect. Likewise, in fruits, they are primarily found to eat fruits of the chokecherry (Prunus virginiana). 

During winter, in the western United States, fruits of the English hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) turn out to be the most important food of robins. Besides, they also eat a lot of fruits of juniper (Juniperus spp.).

While choosing which plants or fruits to pick or swallow, the most important factor seems to be the fruit or crop size. Once they settle on a specific plant, robins (especially wintering robins) prefer large fruits over small ones.

During captivity, robins tend to prefer red or blue artificial fruits more than others.

Research shows robins often prefer non-native fruits over natives, perhaps due to the higher protein content in invasive fruits. In Connecticut, captives preferred eating invasive fruits rather than fruits from native plants. While choosing between (red fruits like) native winterberry and invasive autumn olive, these songbirds always preferred autumn olive. But that may not always be true for every other plant species. Like for instance, between invasive glossy buckthorn and native highbush blueberry, robins preferred native blueberry.

Sources & Further Reading:

Vanderhoff, N., P. Pyle, M. A. Patten, R. Sallabanks, and F. C. James (2020). American Robin (Turdus migratorius), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Robin“. Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Jun. 2020. Accessed 22 March 2021.

Kaufman, Kenn. “American Robin“. Audobon. Accessed 22 March 2021.

Kaufman, Kenn. “Field Guide to Birds of North America“. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston (2000)

Hoskins, Rachel. “What do robins eat?“. Woodland Trust. Accessed 22 March 2021.

Chestem, M. (1990). American Robins feed fledgling crows. Maryland Birdlife 46:83-84.

Beal, F. E. L. (1915). Food of the robins and bluebirds of the United States. U.S. Department of Agriculture Bulletin 171.

Wheelwright, N. T. (1986). The diet of American Robins: An analysis of U.S. Biological Survey records. Auk 103:710–725.

White, D. W. and E. W. Stiles. (1990). Co-occurances of foods in stomachs and feces of fruit-eating birds. Condor 92 (2):291-303.

Wheelwright, N. T. (1986). The diet of American Robins: An analysis of U.S. Biological Survey records. Auk 103:710–725.

Sallabanks, R. (1993c). Hierarchical mechanisms of fruit selection by an avian frugivore. Ecology 74:1326-1336.

Sallabanks, R. (1993c). Hierarchical mechanisms of fruit selection by an avian frugivore. Ecology 74:1326-1336.

White, D. W. and E. W. Stiles. (1991). Fruit harvesting by American Robins: influence of fruit size. Wilson Bulletin 103:690-692.