Once the snow melts and a little warmth creeps back into both the woods and our bones, my husband and I will drag our pillows and comforter down the stairs and out to our back deck. I’ve written of this before: We sleep outside in an open-air bedroom all spring, summer, and fall.
It is now March, and while we haven’t heard them yet, our early morning alarm clocks should arrive back soon. “Wake up! The sun is about to rise over the horizon,” the birds will sing out to us once again. From this early dawn declaration, we will slowly emerge from our foam mattress, open the back-deck door, and start our busy day just as the robins had called upon us to do.
The American robin, also known as Turdus migratorious (yes, the name sounds like a fourth-grade joke), arrives in the Tahoe/Truckee region once its food is uncovered from the depths of winter. They had left us in the first place for just that reason: to find available insects, seeds, and berries. But where did they go? Turns out, not far. Come the first big snowstorm they head to Nevada City, Grass Valley, Auburn, or Reno. They’re not big travelers, at least not in our area, even as their species name, migratorious, might suggest.
According to Edward Beedy, co-author of Birds of the Sierra Nevada: Their Natural History, Status, and Distribution, “American robins are residents on both sides of the Sierra and do not undertake any long-distance migrations. They move around in response to local food supplies and are affected by weather conditions, especially snow cover.” As for their exodus, Beedy says that when robins move to lower elevations, they’ll sometimes gather in large groups of up to 100 or more where they often form large communal roosts.
The American robin is one of the most widespread birds in North America. Check out the year-round sightings map on the Cornell Lab website and you’ll be amazed at the prevalence of this common redbreast. From 2017 to 2022, Turdus migratorious was spotted throughout North America in every state in the United States (except Hawaii), along with Canada, Alaska, and Mexico, with very rare sightings in Iceland, Central America, the Bahamas, and Cuba. They’re even fairly common in the Alaskan tundra, where Beedy was once a naturalist and tour guide at Denali National Park and saw them in numbers daily.
Melodious Alarm Clock
When I contacted doctoral candidate Ben Sonnenberg, a graduate student studying bird behavior at the University of Nevada, Reno, we talked a little about our local robins’ short migration path, but we mainly discussed their songs, thought to be one of the most melodious of all birds.
“Sometimes it sounds like they’re singing two notes at once, doesn’t it, two unrelated pitches?” he said. I had to think about it for a minute, and concluded that yes, it does seem their songs are multilayered.
Robins have a syrinx (seer-inx) he tells me, as do all thrushes, bluebirds, and other birds belonging to the Turdidae or thrush family (Order: Passeriformes or perching bird). In fact, nearly all birds sing through this organ. The few exceptions include New World vultures — turkey vultures and condors — and storks. Instead of singing, they screech, hiss, grunt, and clack.
As with many other terms in our modern-day vocabulary, the origin of the word “syrinx” traces way back to Greek mythology. In the story, of which there are many versions, the god Pan chases after the nymph Syrinx through the woods. When they reach the river Ladon, Syrinx pleads for an escape from Pan’s clutches and is turned into reeds. Mourning his loss, Pan sighs and hears the wind in the reeds that creates a beautiful sound. Captivated by the sweet notes, he fashions the wetland stalks into a musical instrument, a panpipe, later called a syrinx, so that he can carry his loved one with him forever.
So how does this relate to the robin or birds in general? What exactly is this song producing organ, and how does it work?
Birdnote.org defines the syrinx as “a set of muscles and membranes located where the two branches of the bronchial tubes converge to become the trachea.” An image of this organ could be likened to the knob at the top of the two branches of a wishbone, the two divisions being the bronchial tubes stemming from the lungs.
In mammals and reptiles, sound is produced by the larynx, which has little folds of tissue that vibrate when air passes over them. Birds possess a larynx, too, but it’s used strictly for breathing and eating. For birds, songs are all about the syrinx. Air is pushed through the organ to be directed, like a valve, to either one or both bronchial tubes, or switched from side to side (thus producing different notes). Birds vary the volume and pitch by altering the air pressure passing from the lungs to the syrinx and by varying the tension exerted by the syringeal muscles on the membranes. As well, nearly 100% of the air is used for sound production by the syrinx as opposed to around 2% by the human larynx. No wonder a robin’s song is so complex, loud, and often long!
While a robin might seem too common a bird to care much about, listen to its sweet melody — cheerily, cheerio, cheerily, cheerio. Yes, there are times my husband and I wish the dawn chorus wasn’t so darn early, sometimes thirty minutes before the sun crests the mountains. Why so early, anyway? Several theories point to a robin calling out to a mate when the air is still and the sound is clearer. Or it’s dark and thus too early to see in the light to forage, so might as well sing. Or it’s a good time to inform their competitors, other male robins, or their predators — crows, hawks, owls, and raccoons — of their presence. Who can tell?
Most days, however, we’re happy to listen to the dawn chorus and to be informed the sun will soon make its way to our covers. There are worse ways to wake up and greet the day, we often say to one another. How lucky we are to have our own concert right out our back door. Bravo, chickadees, nuthatches, jays, and robins! We raise the light on our phones to your sunrise symphony.