For the Birds: Robins are bountiful this winter

American robin on snowy branches in New England, Feb. 2022.

It appears to be a good winter for juncos, blue jays and goldfinches, based on feedback from readers. Other than a few reports of pine siskins, it doesn’t seem to be a particularly strong winter for the typical irruptive species as sightings of redpolls, grosbeaks and red-breasted nuthatches have been scarce.

I’ll add American robin to the list of birds that have been seen in abundance this winter. This doesn’t mean that spring is here already, of course. As I write this, a winter storm is predicted for the next day. Several more weeks of winter-like weather are ahead of us, I’m sorry to say.

Each year a certain number of robins spend their winters in New England. They can be difficult to find and a walk in the woods is often necessary to find them. This year, robins seem to be more numerous and rather ubiquitous.

I pulled into a small, dirt parking lot the other day and disrupted about a dozen robins that were drinking out of a small puddle. A few white-throated sparrows flushed to nearby cover as well. The robins didn’t go far and I’m sure returned to the puddle as soon as I left. Robins have also been a common sighting near my feeders this winter. They aren’t eating seeds, of course, but finding berries among the brush beyond the feeders.

The robins we see in the winter are likely not the same ones that entertain us and raise their young here in the summer. Those robins are probably enjoying warmer temperatures somewhere south of New England. The robins we see in the winter are likely ones that spend their summers north of here, perhaps in Canada or northern New England. To them, New England is south.

When those robins head back north, they are replaced by “our” robins, which arrive sometime in March and stay with us until the days get shorter and colder again in the fall. When our robins come back and start hopping around our yards listening for worms, then we can say our harbingers of spring have arrived.

How can you tell the difference? We’ve seen our spring robins every year of our lives, and we just know when they are the ones gracing us with their presence. The days will have become longer and warmer, and the excitement of spring will be in the air. Then, we’ll look at our yard, see a robin, and spring will have arrived.

This is certainly not to say our winter robin visitors aren’t welcome. In a way, these winter robins are worthy of more attention than our summer robins. We don’t expect to see robins in the winter, so when we do, it’s a worthy sighting. By mid-summer, our robins have become commonplace, and we long to see something different.

Winter robins are rarely alone. Usually, when there is one robin, there are dozens. In some northern locations, winter flocks of robins number in the hundreds or even thousands. Despite the large numbers, robins can be usually difficult to find in the winter. The frozen ground means their favorite meal of worms is unattainable. Rather, robins that stay with us in the winter eat mostly berries and certain seeds. Fruit from ornamental trees, holly bushes, leftover crabapples and other berries sustain these robins.

So among the black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, mourning doves, northern cardinals, woodpeckers, dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows that we get used to seeing in the winter, keep your eyes open for robins in your neighborhood. Unless, of course, you’d rather wait until spring.

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