Special features

Species profile: Snow bird, American Robin

Fruit-bearing plants allow robins to spend the coldest months of winter in the coldest of places
By Laura Erickson | Published: 11/1/2003

IMG_8030-2-webThe first robin of spring! How many of us look forward to that annual milestone, hungry for evidence that spring is really here? And when we hear our first robin in full song, or see it running on quick legs over our front lawn as the snow recedes, we feel an elation as fresh and new, and as old and familiar, as spring itself.

Robins are genuinely migratory. Huge numbers of them travel south to overwinter in Florida, Texas, and Louisiana, and in southern California, Nevada, and Mexico. For several autumns, birders in Duluth, Minnesota (including me), counted birds migrating along the north shore of Lake Superior. During late September and October we often tallied hundreds and even thousands of robins passing by each hour, and on a single day, October 1, 1988, we counted more than 60,000 robins in a five-hour period beginning at dawn. Daily November counts at Cape May, New Jersey, can reach 200,000 or 300,000 robins, and New Jersey Audubon reported in 1999 that “an incredible million and a half birds hit Cape May Nov. 7, mostly robins.” Despite such large numbers, a great many robins remain in the northern states and Canada throughout winter, and huge numbers winter in the central states. Range maps for robins show them wintering in every state, including coastal Alaska, and in coastal and southern Canada.

Extremely gregarious, wintering robins sometimes gather in feeding flocks of 100 or 200 birds, and spend the night in roosting flocks that can number in the thousands. Feeding flocks are often noisy and conspicuous, but because the birds aren’t where most of us expect to see robins, running on lawns, they sometimes go unrecognized.

It’s always worth scanning a winter feeding flock. Not only is it a joy to see so many robins pigging out together, but you will also occasionally spot mockingbirds, waxwings, or Pine Grosbeaks dining with them, the whole group finding security in numbers with all those eyes and ears to detect shrikes and hawks. As food supplies wane in late winter or during very cold spells, robins may fight over food supplies even with their own species, but when food is abundant, these feeding flocks can be surprisingly convivial. Look for them in crab apple, mountain ash, chokecherry, sumac, highbush cranberry, and other plants that hold their fruit in winter. If robins are wintering in your area, you might be able to attract them to feeders for mealworms or fruits. Mike Houle, a resourceful birder in La Crosse, Wisconsin, provided his backyard robins with fruits and mealworms in a dish filled with sphagnum moss, kept warm by a bird bath heater.

Agriculture and residential lawns have made earthworms and fruit trees more widely available today than they were in pre-settlement times, so numbers of robins are significantly higher now than they were long ago. And the number of robins wintering in northern states has been increasing dramatically in recent years, possibly due to warming trends. The average number of robins counted on Minnesota Christmas Bird Counts during the 1980s was 3.3 per count area. This grew to an average of 15.3 during the 1990s, and to 92.9 during the three CBCs of this decade.

The remarkable increase has made headlines on several occasions. For example, in January 2002 the Chicago Tribune carried a long story about a robin sitting on a nest of eggs in a Lincoln Park evergreen tree still twinkling with Christmas lights as temperatures climbed into the 60s. And even as snow was flying in January and February this past winter, students in such places as Pittsburgh, Kansas; Lexington, Massachusetts; and Charlotte, Vermont, sent reports of robins toJourney North, the free educational website that teaches children about migration (and that I contribute to).

With all these robins wintering so far north, how can we possibly know for sure whether the robin we’re rejoicing in is the first robin of spring or the last robin of winter? As days increase in length in late winter, robins grow restless. Males start singing even in areas covered with deep snow. And as singing increases, birds in flocks become ever more restless. As they start heading north, flocks start splitting up. It’s when the snow melts and spring rains and increasing temperatures suddenly make earthworms available on lawns that robins make their seasonal dietary switch. The first robin you see running on your lawn, cocking his head and searching out succulent worms — no matter what the weather, no matter what the date — that’s the first robin of spring.

Laura Erickson is the author of Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids, which won the 1997 National Outdoor Book Award, and she writes and produces the public radio program “For the Birds.” She also writes for the online educational program Learner Online: Journey North, where you can read and submit reports of wintering and migrating robins and track the birds on maps.