Kids & Critters: The American Robin

Where do American robins wait out the winter?

  • Bill Danielson explains that when the ground is frozen, robins take to the trees to find food. The above photo was taken last February. Bill Danielson photo

Published: 4/3/2016 5:01:33 PM

April is here and the world is definitely starting to wake up. We didn’t really have much of a snow this winter, but the temperatures were still cold and the nights were still long. Ever since the Vernal Equinox, however, the days have been getting longer and the ground has been warming up and thawing out. So it shouldn’t be too long before you start to see robins hopping through the lawns and fields of our area looking for worms.

Specifically, I am speaking of the American robin (Turdus migratorius). This bird is common throughout North America and can be seen just about anywhere there is open ground. The bird is about 10 inches in length and can look rather plump if it decides to fluff out its feathers. The most striking field mark on this species is the orange-red breast, which is why this bird is sometimes called robin redbreast. I have no doubt that you’ll see one of these birds in your own yard, or even at school in coming weeks.

Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret about robins. Many people think that robins disappear in the winter and then migrate back to our area in the spring. While it is certainly true that many, if not most robins do indeed head south for the winter, it is also true that many stay in our area all winter long. Particularly during a mild winter, like the one we had this year, robins can be seen or heard every single day.

A frozen ground during winter actually forces robins to change their behavior. Rather than hopping along the ground and looking for worms and insects, robins will turn their attention to the trees, where they can find fruits that have been preserved by the cold. Robins will eat crabapples, poison ivy berries, dogwood berries and anything else that might keep them going. Because of this change in behavior, it may seem like the robins are gone, but in fact they have just moved to a different habitat that isn’t quite so easy to watch from inside the house.

If you take a look at the photo I have provided this week, you will notice that this particular robin is standing in a grassy area that has patches of icy snow still present. I took this photo last February and it confirms the notion that robins can be found in our area in the winter. There are some other interesting bits of information that can be gleaned from this photo, so take a close look at it.

The bird in the photo is an adult male American robin. You can make this identification because of the deep red of the breast feathers and the dark black feathers on the head. Adult females would have head feathers that are closer in color to the dark gray feathers on the robin’s back and their breast feathers would be a paler shade of red. These are field marks that you would have to see through a pair of binoculars, or a really good camera, however.

I’ve had robins in my yard all winter long, but about the same time we celebrated the first day of spring, I started to hear robins singing. This bright and cheery sound is one that will improve your mood and make you want to spend time outside. The males do the singing, partly to attract mates, partly to defend territories and partly (I think) just because they are filled with excitement. Spring is a very busy season for all birds, but robins get an early start.

So keep your eyes open for robins hopping through the lawns around homes and schools. Sometimes you may see only one or two, but other times there may be large flocks of robins that seem to move across the ground like herds of grazing animals. These large groups will be easy to see for a couple of weeks, but eventually the robins will start spreading out across the landscape and dividing it up into territories that pairs will defend. Now that it’s warm, I hope you get a chance to go outside and watch the robins in your neighborhood.


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