Good Natured: Enjoying Robins Year-Round
How about those robins, huh?
There we were, amid the coldest temperatures winter has thrown our way in quite some time, and who should come bob-bob-bobbin' along but our beloved first sign of spring, the American robin.
And it wasn't just one brave individual. In certain habitats they numbered in the dozens! One day during that Arctic blast we had in mid-January I counted 14 robins taking turns at my heated birdbath, and an untold number more flitting about the neighborhood.
There's no doubt these feathered friends, known also as Turdus migratorius, are enjoying a fair share of success right now. Not surprisingly, as is so often the case, we humans are more than a little responsible.
For one thing, through the steps we take to make ourselves comfortable, we also make things easier for robins. We've built structures that offer sheltered and predator-proof nesting locations. How many of you have had robins build nests on your porch pillars or outside light fixtures?
A look at Kane County's Audubon's Spring Bird Count data confirms that robins are doing very well in our area. So well, in fact, that they rank third in terms of total individuals seen over the survey's nearly 50-year history. (Coming in at No. 2 is the common grackle and No. 1 is the red-winged blackbird.)
By now you're probably thinking, "Okay Otto, we get it. Robins are doing well. But why are we seeing so many in winter? Don't they migrate? Isn't their return a sign of spring??"
Well, yes and no. If we look at the fabulous dataset housed at ebird.org, which is managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we see that robins are reported in Illinois all twelve months of the year. Granted, the frequency of sightings jumps as we get into March and April, but even in December and January roughly one in every five lists reported includes American robins.
Well, alrighty then. Looks like we need to dig a little bit further into what makes robins tick.
Besides shelter, they also need food. And there again, humans have gone above and beyond.
Our preference for landscaping with trees and shrub that produce flowers, and therefore fruits, has created a year-round source of food for T. migratorius. True, the image of a robin pulling a worm from the ground is about as iconic as a nature photo can get. But in reality robins consume a diverse diet that varies with season and availability.
I'd wager that all of you who have been seeing robins this winter have seen them in or near fruit-bearing plantings. Crabapple trees. Hawthorns. Sumac. Bittersweet. Honeysuckle. Buckthorn. Roses, with their vitamin C-laden hips. All are readily available in our area and consumed with gusto. (Indeed, some of these plants are introduced and quite invasive. But that's another story for another time.)
Suet is another option offered at, you guessed it, feeders placed by humans.
To wash down these delicacies, as well as keep their feathers in peak condition, robins need a source of water. Once again, we've have come through on both large and small scales. We've built dams that keep water open and flowing on their downstream sides, and we've placed heaters in our birdbaths. Check! Another vital requirement met.
A few other things to keep in mind as you observe robins this winter:
* Migration is taxing on birds of all species. Wear and tear on muscles and feathers can be substantial. Robins, being hardy and opportunistic, can avoid the stress of migration by flying only as far as necessary to find food, water and shelter.
*Robins form flocks when not in breeding mode. Birds in a group have a better chance of finding food and detecting predators than do individuals going it alone.
*As casual observers, we have no way of knowing for sure whether our winter robins are year-round residents, or visitors from farther north. Chances are, we're seeing a little bit of both.
*Even though we still experience some periods of extreme cold, our recent winters have generally been mild. Warmer temperatures improve winter survival rates.
I know, it's hard to give up the idea that robins signal that spring has arrived. The good news is, you don't have to. All you need to do is modify your technique just a bit.
Instead of thinking, “There's a robin! Spring is here!" try “There are two robins! One is singing and defending his territory and the other one is gathering nesting material." Then you can say, with certainty, “Spring is finally here!"
Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.