If you live in the northern half of the U.S. it may take you by surprise to suddenly see a tree-full of robins in the midst of a frigid winter. The bird we associate with spring seems out of place and vulnerable, surrounded by deep snow. But robins often do remain in their summer breeding grounds over winter and only a few are short-distance migrants. Some birds may head south toward Mexico and Florida, but many U.S. birds stay put. Only birds that summer in Canada regularly move south when cold weather sets in.
So why is it such a surprise when a flock of robins suddenly appear in winter? The reason is their change in diet. In spring, we’re used to seeing robins hopping across suburban lawns, cocking their heads at the grass, pulling up worms for themselves and their nestlings. But although earthworms account for about 15% of a Robin’s diet, along with some insects and invertebrates, robins are primarily fruit and berry-eaters. Some of the foods they enjoy are hawthorn fruits, crab-apples and chokecherries, as well as juniper, honeysuckle and sumac berries. In winter, with no earthworms to be had, a robin’s diet changes to almost exclusively fruits and berries. As a result, they tend to frequent moist, dense woodlands where berry-producing shrubs and plants are more likely found. And instead of being seen out on your lawn, they spend their winter roosting together in trees and shrubs—largely unnoticed. When they suddenly do appear, you’ll likely see a flock of them, gathered in a crab-apple tree or sumac bush, devouring the fruits and berries.
When you see robins in winter, your first thought might be to put out something to feed them. Robins will love dried blueberries or cranberries, suet pellets and wax worms. Or you can soak raisins in warm water to soften them, or put out grapes cut in half or apple slices. And robins especially seem to enjoy a heated bird bath. If you don’t have a heated bath, you can purchase a heater for an existing bath. In fact, your birds might be attracted more to the water at first, so having the birdbath out and then placing your foods on a ground feeder or scattered near the birdbath may be the best way to attract them to the foods you’re offering. And if you do feed robins in winter, chances are extremely good that they’ll find a place to nest in your yard come spring.
Robins are the largest of the thrushes, a large family that includes bluebirds, solitaires and Veerys. There are four species of robins, three of which reside south of Texas. But our American Robin needs no introduction! They’re easily recognized by their gray-brown backs, darker heads and warm-orange bellies. We’re even familiar with the color of their eggs (robin’s-egg-blue, of course!), and many of us have had the joy of watching a robin build a nest in their yard and can recognize the spotted youngsters. Robins build an open nest of sticks and twigs that may be built on flat surfaces such as the top of air conditioning units or overhangs near your house or low in the branches of a tree or dense shrub. Thrushes are some of our most eloquent songsters. Robins have a cheerful song in spring (listen to the robin’s song) and in winter a tweeting, chirping call (listen to the robin’s chirp).
But even if most robins are with us all winter, the sight of a Robin will always be the first sign of spring!