It should no longer be a “new” fact, or an item of surprise, that many robins stay all winter. They have done this for a long time and are doing it more and more. Yet, I still get raised eyebrows when I mention winter robins and the fact that I normally see my first robin of the year on Jan. 1st. Of course, there are many times when I get raised eyebrows no matter what I say, but I know that at least a few of these incidences were robin related. This has got to end, if for no other reason that it denies the basic truth that robins are capable of being tough cold weather birds. They are Christmas birds.
Let’s start by putting robins on our Christmas cards. Wildlife centered Christmas Cards tend to show cardinals and chickadees artfully arranged on evergreen branches or perched upon holiday wreathes. An occasional ruffed grouse or pheasant makes the picture card scene as well, but never – at least in my vast worldly experience – do we see robin art on Christmas cards.
Granted, this concept would take a period of adjustment but it would eventually catch on. Heck, batman has his robin so why couldn’t Ole St. Nick have a side-kick/helper/worker robin? He couldn’t be called Santa Robin because that would infer that Santa was some sort of thief (does no one else care that a Santa Bear sounds suspiciously like a jolly naked elf?) but perhaps a long official sounding name like Robin Peter Toupee Paul? No one, except rich Peter people, would object to the notion of a Robin Hood Christmas bird. In fact, the thought of a somewhat shady holiday sidekick might have some appeal. He would wear a toupee that makes him look like Wayne Newton in order to disguise his real identity. Robins are not shady in the least, but a fictional Robin Peter (call him Robin P.T.P.P.) character might be good P.R. to bolster an otherwise ubiquitous milk-toast reputation. Look at what the Grinch did for…for… bankers, for instance.
Robins are tough, so they really don’t need reputation boosting (or toupees). The only real reason birds migrate in the first place is food. Winter cold has little to do with the decision to head south. Keep in mind that migration is a dangerous energy-demanding business and there is always a trade off between costly travel and costly on-site survival (In other words, is it worth braving the traffic and expending gas costs to go across town to save a few cents on a bag of Christmas candies at another store?). Because robins have the ability to switch over their diet from worms and other invertebrates to fruits and berries, they have the option to survive winter conditions without risking long dangerous flights. In any given population of robins, however, a majority of them choose to migrate anyway – which is how the whole “first robin of Spring” thing comes from. There are migratory robins that leave and return just like they are supposed to. In fact, most of them do this. But there is also a significant minority that opts to stick around the North Country. Why some ultimately choose to go and others to stay remains a mystery, but even those that stay really don’t stay put for long.
The scientific name of the American Robin is the somewhat ridiculous sounding “Turdus migratorious.” Improperly translated this means “universal pooper”. Properly translated this name means “migratory thrush” or “thrush always on the go.” For that significant portion of the robin population that over-winters, this translates into a constant wandering search for berry producing trees. Robin flocks will be around your neighborhood as long as there are freeze-dried hawthorns, rose hips, mountain ash and poison ivy berries to eat. They move on to new pastures when that crop is depleted.
Apart from switching to vegetarian diets, winter robins also bury their normal territorial ways and become communal. This not only increases predator awareness but also increases the chances that any individual bird will stumble upon a rich crop of shriveled berries. The availability of liquid water is one of the biggest restrictions imposed by winter life. Robins are fanatical bathers during the warmer months. They are oily creatures known to bathe twice daily in order to keep up their appearances. Perhaps it is because of this liquid need that winter flocks tend to hang out near water sources.
I recently watched a winter robin flock work a section of scrub woodlot. These birds, nine individuals in all, were picking multi-flora rose hips and buckthorn berries. True to form, they were restless eaters that rarely staid in one bush for very long. They flew about like wind-blown leaves. Every now and then, one or two would fly over to a frozen canal and sip melt water from the surface of the ice (see here). Seeing these hardy robins, standing ankle deep in frigid ice water, brought home my initial point that robins are real winter birds – not just amateurs. As the robins flew off I began to hum the prelude to “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” – ending with “but do you recall the most famous robin of all?” I was, of course, referring to that rascally Christmas bird: Robin P.T.P.P.
Merry Christmas to All and to all a good night.