By Bryan Stevens
I don’t think I’m alone in doing what I can to speed along the process of spring’s arrival. I’ve heard from different people, all eager to share their observations of one of the sure signals — the arrival of flocks of American robins — of the shifting of the winter season to spring.
Bobby Howser phoned me to let me know of a large flock of American Robins he encountered at the Sullins College building in Bristol, Virginia.
He said the flock “swarmed like bees” into a tall holly tree. He was surprised to see so many robins in a single tree and asked if it was an unusual occurrence.
Ernie Marburg in Abingdon, Virginia, emailed me about the same time.
“I just wanted to report that we have been inundated with a huge flock of mostly robins,” he wrote. He estimated that the flock contained 300 to 500 individuals.
“They ate all the red berries from my neighbor’s large holly tree yet appear to avoid other holly trees with many red berries just a short distance away,” Ernie wrote.
The flock remained active in the tree from morning into early afternoon.
Not long after he first emailed me, Ernie contacted me again.
“I wanted to give you an update on the robin invasion,” he wrote. “They have been here two additional mornings since I first reported to you. Their pattern is different now though. They are spaced apart and appear to be ground feeding individually.”
Ernie proposed a theory about the behavior of the robins.
“I think they followed the south to north weather pattern we had recently that provided significant rainfall,” he explained. “The rainfall, in turn, caused the ground to thaw and the earthworms to come to the surface thus providing a food source for the robins. In summary, the robins are following their food source.”
I responded to Ernie and congratulated him on what I thought was an excellent theory.
Ernie also wrote me that he had read an article some time ago that said robins would eat cooked elbow macaroni if put out for them.
“We did that, but not one robin ate the macaroni,” he said. “Moral of the story is, as you would expect, don’t believe everything you read.”
I’ve read similar suggestions of unusual items to try to tempt birds not prone to visit feeders. I told Ernie that I wasn’t too surprised that the robins ignored the macaroni. The observations of robin feeding habits made by Bobby and Ernie also correspond to the changing seasons. Holly trees retain their berries into late winter, which provide an abundant food source for robins, as well as other birds. As the temperatures begin to rise in early spring, the birds switch their diet in favor of earthworms. This protein-rich food source fuels the impressive migration made by robins each year.
I posted on my Facebook page about the flocks of robins I’d observed, which resulted in several comments on my original post.
Johnny Mann, who lives in Bristol, Tennessee, shared on my Facebook page after I posted about seeing flocks of robins almost everywhere I have gone recently. He noted that he has been seeing Eastern bluebirds, which are a smaller relative of robins. He noted in his comment that the bluebirds are feeding on suet.
Jackie Lynn, who lives in Wytheville, Virginia, also posted a comment on my Facebook page. Jackie saw a large flock of robins feeding in a field, enjoying the worms brought to the surface by recent rains. “Dinner was served,” Jackie reported.
Several other people responded optimistically on my Facebook page, sharing the hope that the influx of robins does indeed signal the approach of spring.
The American robin is known by the scientific name Turdus migratorius, which can be translated as “migratory thrush.” Indeed, this well-known American bird is related to other thrushes, including the Eastern bluebird, wood thrush and veery. The relationship to other thrushes is quite visible in young birds, which display a spotted breast until they mature and acquire the familiar red breast associated with robins.
There are 82 other species in the genus, which ranges not only in the Americas, but Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, as well. Some of the American robin’s fellow genus members include the olive thrush, the bare-eyed thrush, pale thrush, great thrush, black-billed thrush and cocoa thrush.
When the first European settlers arrived in North America, the robin was still a bird living in the forests. Robins proved incredibly capable of adapting to the presence of humans. Soon enough, these once shy forest birds began to frequent lawns and city parks. The robin soon became one of America’s most popular songbirds. Three states — Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin — have conferred official state bird status on the American robin.
Robins begin nesting almost as soon as they return each spring. Nesting success in a previous season instills fidelity to the location where the birds nested, resulting in many robins returning to the same nesting area year after year. Although some robins invariably spent the entire winter season in the region, it is still a welcome sight to see migrating flocks of these birds in February and early March. The sudden resurgence of the American robin each spring is a reminder that another winter will soon be history. I know I’m always pleased to welcome them back.
Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email [email protected]