For the Birds Radio Program: Late Fall Robins

Original Air Date: Oct. 29, 2001 (estimated date)

In early winter, robins are a wonderful treat.

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I’m writing this the last week of October. The leaves are mostly gone, the moon is on the wane, and the crisp air seems closer to winter than summer. Snow Buntings flutter about on country roads, Rough-legged Hawks have replaced kestrels on my favorite fields on Wisconsin’s Highway 13 along Lake Superior, and snow flakes that have twice flecked my windshield are tangible proof that summer is over.

But tell that to the robins gathered by Duluth East High School this week, running on lawns as if it were high summer. Like the first robins of spring, these are adult males in high plumage. Mountain ash and other berry-laden trees are providing the bulk of their food right now, but the worms in still-soft soil are giving them a bit of protein as well.

The normal range of the vast majority of robins is well south of here, but there are always a few stragglers up north, and in the past few years, with the mild winters and abundant berry crops, the robin population has soared and more than normal have overwintered up here. If we go back to having a typical north country winter this year, many of these stragglers will retreat south, but even if we get long spells of days seriously below zero, robins are perfectly capable of toughing out the cold as long as they have food.

In virtually all species where some individuals remain farther north than the bulk of the population, it’s normally the males who stay farther north. This may in part help these individuals get the jump on the rest come spring, allowing them to choose the finest territories, but probably the most important reason that only males stay in the colder areas is that females can’t afford to spend their winters on the margin like this. When spring returns, they have to be physiologically ready to build a nest and lay four eggs as soon as they come back north, so they spend their winters where they can feed on more nourishing fare than frozen berries. I haven’t seen a female robin in weeks now–it’s just the more flashy males that remain, which also explains why photographs of robins feeding on snow-covered berries are always so colorful-these winter birds are male.

If robins are at least a little more common in winter than most people realize, they are still secretive and wary, acting totally different than they do in summer. Once the ground freezes up and the snow flies, they are obviously not going to be running on lawns looking for worms, and without any leafy protection, they’re not going to be perching in deciduous trees, either. We have to look carefully to find the secluded spots they like in winter. The two things to look for are berries and water. Anywhere along the north shore, little stands of mountain ash trees near rivers may harbor a robin or two, and when you look carefully through a group of these winter robins, you may find other treats, too. Pine Grosbeaks often join them, but also the much rarer Varied Thrush or Townsend’s Solitaire may show up. Last winter, John Heid and I found a really special treat on the Grand Marais Christmas Bird Count–a mockingbird. And sure enough, it was eating berries right in the midst of a big flock of robins.

Even though they’re not all that uncommon, winter robins seem special. Is it that our traditional symbol of spring exudes a symbolic warmth, conjuring images of spring? Or do we attribute to it a unique strength, thinking it struggles harder to survive than more common winter birds?

Even when we realize how truly hardy and capable robins are, there is still something thrilling about seeing one in the middle of winter. And already, though winter is weeks away and I’m looking forward to ice skating, cross country skiing, and winter owling, I’m thrilling at the sight of these homey birds.