I wouldn’t have thought I’d write about American Robins in October, but having seen and heard them over the past week, I thought it might be good to talk about where they’re going and why so many birds leave the northern states each fall. Last week I heard robins singing in the morning, making the day feel as though it were April and not October. It’s funny how certain sounds are so closely associated with certain seasons
American robins will utilize a variety of habitats, since it they are found all across the U.S., from top to bottom, east coast to west. In the summer they migrate even further north into parts of Canada, including the tundra, but for the most part, once the leaves begin to fall, the Robins start moving south. But it’s not because the temperatures are dropping; it all has to do with food supply. This is true for all the birds. While we imagine they are leaving to avoid
the cold winter weather, as so many people would like to do, they are really leaving because in the months ahead it is going to become more and more difficult to find the invertebrates or fruit that they depend upon for survival. If it was the cold and snow that drove the birds away, we wouldn’t have chickadees or woodpeckers or blue jays to keep us company in the long winter months.
Robins, as we all know by the time we’re 5 years old, are great at finding worms in spring lawns. But they will also eat beetles, grubs, grasshoppers and caterpillars. It is estimated that 40% of their diet is made up of this sort of insect matter. The rest consists of fruit and
berries. If you have a crabapple tree or a mountain ash, you have probably seen robins, especially late in the season eating these fruits. They are even known to become inebriated after eating fruits that have been frozen and begun to ferment.
If there is a reliable and abundant source of fruit trees or berry bushes, robins just might stay the winter. Every year, someone reports with surprise, seeing robins on a snowy day in Minnesota. It just doesn’t seem right and we can’t help but worry that the poor birds are doomed to freeze to death, but with their downy feathers and sufficient food, they will make it, just like our other winter birds.
When you think about all the birds that head south, it is easy to understand why. Warblers depend on a huge amount of small insects, many of the flying variety. Loons and ducks need vegetation or fish found in open water; raptors, for the most part, need to be able to get to rodents and other small mammals that live on the ground. Once the ponds freeze and the snow covers the ground, the food source for these species is locked away until spring melt.
The birds we are left with through the winter months, have found ways to survive on the bare minimum, locating insect larvae under the bark of trees, scavenging seeds from plants that stick up above the snow cover, or eating the berries that manage to cling to branches after the leaves have fallen. It’s not an easy life for sure, and that is why so many of us get so much satisfaction filling our bird feeders with sunflower bird seed and watching the birds spend the daylight hours flying in and out. They could get by without us, but it’s nice to know we’re making life easier for them. In exchange they provide us with a constant ‘reality’ show of feathers and sound, even on the coldest days.
By Kate Crowley