Sharon Stiteler runs Birdchick.com and wrote the books "City Birds/Country Birds" and "Disapproving Rabbits." She leads bird trips, does bird surveys around the country and works part time as a national park ranger.
True Minnesota winter has set in, with the temperature dipping well below zero. We load on our layers when forced outdoors or watch the cold from our windows. Perhaps while sipping coffee and peering out your kitchen window you marvel at the birds outside and wonder, "How do they do it?"
You watch the birds in your yard fluttering from branch to branch and suddenly, one in particular catches your attention. It's medium-sized, brown on its back and it has a distinctive orange breast. There's nothing else it can be but an American Robin.
And then dozens of robins materialize before your eyes. There's a large flock working the branches of the trees.
Robins are traditionally thought of as a sign of spring. What the heck could a robin be doing in Minnesota in winter? Is this a major and definitive sign of climate change?
No. This is normal.
It may seem strange that you have never noticed before, but American Robin foraging habits and behavior change throughout the year. In spring and summer, the males perch high in a tree, trumpeting their song ... sometimes at 4 in the morning. During the day, males and females forage the ground, searching for insects and worms. They will also raid berry-laden trees and shrubs. They are low to the ground and hard to miss.
In winter, their food is primarily high in trees as they eat the hard fruits of hackberry trees lining many Twin Cities neighborhoods. Buckthorn is the bane of many woodlands as it crowds out native plants. However, this aggressive shrub provides a hefty berry crop that robins will feast on for hours, aiding in replanting more buckthorn in the process. Some robins get very creative with food; they can be found outside bait shops feeding on discarded minnows or even lurking around ponds with open water, trying to secure a fish.
Since we are used to seeing these birds hopping the ground in urban yards, we don't watch for them high in trees in the winter.
Bird feathers are one of the true wonders of nature. When a bird fluffs out its feathers, they can trap the warm air against the body. Birds will even hunker down on a branch covering their toes to stay warm.
For such a common bird, there is still quite a bit that ornithologists do not understand about American Robins. Some of them are migratory, but exactly where and how far they go is not known. The robins we see hanging out in the Twin Cities in winter are most likely robins that breed in Canada in summer. But where exactly do our breeding robins go? Do some stay, or do they head down to the southern United States?
So enjoy and admire these hearty winter robins. When you hear a male singing his territory song, then you can take comfort that spring is actually at hand.