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Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Winter robins don’t hint of spring

Robins become signs of spring when they show up in numbers and spread out. Then they begin establishing territories. Soon enough, they occupy open spaces in backyards and city parks. They begin to sing. Then you know it’s spring.

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Illustration by Mike Jacobs

When you’re watching a robin on a morning when the temperature is 20 below zero, you start to wonder, has this bird lost its status as a sign of spring?

Well, it has, and it hasn’t.

Certainly, robins are seen more frequently in winter now, but some stragglers have stayed around most winters, and in some winters, they have been fairly easy to find. Sometimes, large flocks linger into December.

So, the appearance of a robin, or even many robins, doesn’t suggest that spring is nigh.

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Robin behavior, however: That’s another story – and an authentic sign of spring.
Robins are social birds at all times, but in nesting season, they spread out. In fact, they feign fighting as a way of establishing and defending individual territories. In winter, they gather in groups. This week, I heard reports of eight and a dozen in separate flocks on either side of the Red River. I once encountered a flock of 100 or more in a copse of crabapple trees within the circle for the Devils Lake Christmas Bird Count. Of course, that was in late December, a full month earlier than last week’s reports. It’s possible those birds were northerners bound farther south.

That is almost certainly true of another sighting, my largest-ever of robins in winter. I remember the day well: Dec. 8. It was one of my best days outdoors. I’d been in Williston, N.D., and my schedule fell open, so I drove to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was a sparkling winter day, a skiff of snow on the ground, temperature in the low 20s, a thin sheet of ice on the Little Missouri River, where the water was low, as it usually is late in the year.

I knew a spot where the river makes a broad turn over rocks and gravel. The water would be moving over that spot, I figured, and thinking that open water might have attracted something to see, and knowing that a hiking trail passed nearby, I decided to check it out. I wasn’t disappointed. An enormous number of robins were spread out along the water, drinking in turn. I couldn’t count them all, so I applied the techniques to estimate crowd size that I learned in journalism school: Count an area and estimate how many similar squares there are, then multiply. I came up with 1,000 robins.

That wasn’t the end of the wonders of that day. Hiking back up the trail, I encountered a bighorn sheep watching me from the crest of a ridge. The beast seemed untroubled, so I walked ahead. As I crested a rise in the trail and looked ahead and a little to my left, I saw eight more sheep. They watched unperturbed as I passed.

The sheep spent the winter in the park, of course, but I doubt that the robins did.

Only one other time have I seen so many robins at once, while I was exploring Little Heart Butte south of Mandan, N.D. This was in late fall and the birds were flying parallel to a tree row along the west boundary of the wildlife management area, heading south. It took half an hour for the multitude to pass.

This is not behavior to expect of robins in spring.

Robins become signs of spring when they show up in numbers and spread out. Then they begin establishing territories. Soon enough, they occupy open spaces in backyards and city parks. They begin to sing. Then you know it’s spring.

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Several critical elements are at play here. First are the lengthening days and the strengthening sun. Like most birds, robins are phototropic. Their mass movements are a response to light.

The warmth of the sun is significant for robins in another way. As spring advances, they shift their diet from hanging fruit to crawling worms. The worms aren’t accessible in frozen ground, so the robins’ arrival en masse coincides with the thaw.

In winter, robins eat mostly fruit, and in the aggregate, fruit accounts for more than half of the food a robin absorbs in a year. The other 40%, taken almost exclusively in spring and summer, is worms, grubs and insects, which count as meat in the bird world.

A robin on the ground eating worms is a sign of spring. So is a robin in a treetop singing its heart out.

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Last week’s robin reports contained an apparent anomaly. The birds were prowling through pine trees, knocking down cones, apparently foraging. I combed through my bird book collection and didn’t find any references to robins eating pine nuts, though that doesn’t mean they don’t do it. Another possibility that occurred to me is that they were shaking bugs out of the cones.

In any case, they were hungry robins.

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Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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Mike Jacobs


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