Unravelling the mystery of the robin in winter

Gardener wonders why some robins are still hanging around in the cold Canadian winters, rather than basking in warmer climes.

The north wind doth blow, and we shall have snow,

And what will poor robin do then, poor thing?

He’ll sit in a barn, and keep himself warm,

And hide his head under his wing, poor thing.

The North Wind Doth Blow (Robin), author unknown

When I spot a robin huddling in a snowy tree while out on my daily strolls, I often wonder why some of them are still hanging around here in these cold Canadian winters, rather than basking in warmer climes. Was it because a few happened to miss the memo to move south, or are they just the birdbrains of the bunch?

In case you’re curious about this too, I’ll begin with a little background on these beautiful little birds that we all love and know so well!

These heralds of the dusk and dawn with their delightful song are known as an American robin, named after the European robin because of its reddish-orange breast, though not closely related.  They are part of the thrush family which has about 65 species, ranging from medium to large, and seven subspecies with only one – the Baja California Sur – that is particularly distinctive from the rest because of its pale, grey-brown under parts.

According to some sources, this bird ranks behind only the red-winged blackbird and just ahead of the introduced European starling and the not-always naturally occurring house finch, as the most abundant land bird on this continent. This is a triumph considering that an unbelievable 80 per cent of their young fall to predators every year, like that raven that raided the nest full of fledglings on my porch last year.

Jerk!

Robins are a migratory songbird that commonly live and breed throughout North America, from Alaska to Mexico, and move around more in response to food sources rather than to temperature. There are a few that tough it out in the northern part of the U.S. and southern Canada, but the majority head south to over-winter in Florida and the Gulf Coast, central Mexico and Guatemala, as well as along the Pacific Coast.

The males are far more likely to remain in the north than females, not because they’re more macho, but because come springtime, their main job is to find and defend a territory and they want to be there first. A female’s job is to create and lay the eggs, which requires a lot of good nutrition and food energy, so she has to make sure she’s got lots of groceries in winter, which keeps her in the sunnier south.

One would think that robins could freeze to death in the winter months, especially in the colder provinces, but apparently frigid temperatures – even extreme cold – don’t hurt most birds, just as long as they have food.  As nights grow cooler during the fall, northern birds start growing lots of downy feathers close to their bodies that help keep them insulated and warm, plus they’re also able to make body heat by shivering.

During the spring, summer and fall, their diet consists of delicacies such as beetle grubs, earthworms, caterpillars, fruits and berries and the ones that stay north nibble on mostly mountain ash berries and crabapples.  These might not be that easy to find at times, so us folks can help out our little feathered friends by offering them nutritious energy snacks like blueberries, raspberries and strawberries – but not birdseed, because they’ll turn their beaks up at it.

These tough little thrushes would also appreciate it if you could leave the food in the same spot so they can find it easier and faster, as well as put out a little drinking water if everything is frozen up, because it takes precious energy for them to melt snow in their mouths.

It doesn’t seem like they belong here in winter to me, but I guess it’s their choice to stay and they’re not suffering. When I see one in the snow now, I’ll know that it’s probably coping with the cold OK because there’s luckily plenty of mountain ash in the area to keep their tummies topped up to keep warm. But still, I think I’ll treat them to a blueberry or two if it turns really cold, just to make sure they survive – poor things!

 

 

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