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Robins provide hopeful signal that spring is nearing

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay An American robin prepares to swallow a berry plucked from a tree. These birds are adaptable, able to shift from a summer diet of insects and earthworms to a winter diet heavy on fruits and berries.

When I posted Jan. 29 on Facebook about seeing my first flock of American robins in 2021, I didn’t anticipate an avalanche of comments from other observant bird enthusiasts.

Priscilla Gutierrez commented on seeing about 30 robins in a field along Limestone Cove Road in Unicoi. “They don’t come to the feeders,” Priscilla noted. “It was wonderful to see them.”

Erwin resident Brenda Marie Crowder commented that “tons of robins are eating my holly berries right now. With snow dropping and all.”

Nan Hidalgo, who lives a little farther south in St. Lucie, Florida, reported that she had five robins in her yard on a recent Friday afternoon.

Christine M. Schwarz in Alexandria, Virginia, shared her own sightings. “Three weeks ago there was a large flock at Mount Vernon,” Christine wrote in a comment to my post. “I have seen a smaller group over by Fort Belvoir, too. I can’t believe they’re migrating now — more like wintering over.”

Byron Tucker, who lives in Atlanta, commented, “The other day, I saw a flock of robins and blackbirds mixed together.” I’ve been a guest at Byron’s home, which is located in a wooded subdivision in north Atlanta. It’s a great location, which has attracted everything from barred owls and red-shouldered hawks to brown-headed nuthatches and pine warblers.

Another Facebook friend who goes by the moniker Hissy Fitz, commented from Charles City, Virginia. “Two days ago there was a huge flock of robins in the three holly trees in our driveway circle. They were there for several hours and I don’t think there’s a single berry left on any of the trees.”

Alice Torbett related a similar experience that happened at her home in Knoxville. Alice commented that she saw her first flock of robins about two weeks ago when they swooped in to harvest berries from the holly trees at her Knoxville home. “They were very considerate to wait until after Christmas,” she added.

Dee Obrien, formerly of Elizabethton, Tennessee, but now living in Florida, lamented the timing of the robins. “They always seem to come back too soon, poor little things,” she wrote. “It is too cold.”

Becky Boyd shared her own experience with robins. “I’ve had dozens here in Knoxville,” she said. “They all recently left, except one loner who is terrorizing the bluebirds and attacking them at the feeders.”

Anne Powell Cowan in Bristol, Tennessee, has been picking early daffodils, according to her comment on my Facebook post. “I also had a flock of about 20 robins yesterday,” she added.

Erwin resident Donna Rea, and a former co-worker at The Erwin Record, posted a question to my Facebook robin discussion. “What do robins eat this time of year?” Donna asked. “Will they eat out of our feeders if the ground is frozen and they can’t find a hibernating worm?”

I suggested in my reply that robins might eat suet at feeders, as well as fruit. More likely, the restless robins in the region are probably scouring the countryside for holly trees with berries. Of course, robins are omnivorous in their appetite and would gladly take an earthworm if they could coax one out of the chilly ground.

Blountville resident Brenda Richards hasn’t seen any robins yet, but she is enjoying some early blooms. “My winter crocus have been blooming a little more than a week now,” she wrote. “There are more blooming everyday.”

South Carolina resident Catherine Romaine Henderson simply posted an optimistic comment on my robin post. “Please tell me spring is coming!” I am hopeful that, despite recent snowstorms, the robins, as well as the early blooms of crocus and daffodils, might indicate the inevitable shifting of the seasons is gaining momentum.

The American robin is indeed widely held to be a harbinger of spring. Furthermore, the robin is a popular American bird. In fact, this bird has been designated the official state bird by Wisconsin and Michigan. In truth, many robins forego migration to endure a few months of cold weather. Their ability to shift their diet from earthworms and insects to fruit and feeder fare helps robins eke out a living. Robins remain an abundant bird but their fondness for co-existing with humans can leave them vulnerable to pesticides applied to lawns and gardens.

According to the website, “All About Birds,” the American robin nests three times a year. On average, however, only 40 percent of robin nests succeed at fledging young. Even once out of the nest, young robins are vulnerable. The website estimates that only 25 percent of each year’s fledged robins will reach November. So, the young robins that join some of the large flocks people are seeing in the region are birds that have beaten the odds.

Even the robins that do depart the region each fall don’t migrate far. Many robins that spend the summer in Canada or the northern United States only migrate as far as the Gulf States, southern Florida, southern California, Baja California and Mexico.

The American robin is a large songbird in the thrush family, which in North America also includes such birds as Eastern bluebird, wood thrush, and Townsend’s solitaire. In the British Isles, the European robin is simply known as “robin” or “robin redbreast.” When the first English colonists arrived in New England and other parts of colonial-era North America, they took pleasure in finding that some of the birdlife in the New World resembled familiar birds from their homeland. The red-breasted American robin looked like the bird they knew in the Old World as “robin,” which motivated them to name the New World bird “robin,” as well.

Photo by Pixabay The European robin’s red breast provided the inspiration for naming the similar red-breasted bird the American robin.

Other than the red breast, however, the two robins are not all that similar. The American robin is the larger of the two birds. Further separating these two birds is the fact that the European robin is not a thrush but rather a member of the family of Old World flycatchers. In some ways, the two robins are similar. Both are fond of earthworms, spending a great deal of their time on the ground foraging for these squirmy treats. They will also follow human gardeners at their work, waiting patiently for the followed person to disturb the soil with a spade or hoe and expose earthworms for the waiting bird. They are also rather tolerant of humans and have learned to make their own homes close to human dwellings. Some of the British transplants to North America must have felt homesick for familiar things because several unsuccessful attempts were made to introduce the European robin to the United States and Canada. European robins introduced in New York and Oregon failed to gain a foothold, unlike the introduction of such alien birds as the house sparrow and European starling.

On a few occasions, our American robins have overflown their destinations and ended up in the United Kingdom. For instance, an American robin became a first for London birdwatchers when one was found in that nation’s capital city in March of 2006. Whether of the European or American persuasion, robins have long been a favorite of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.

They have even adapted to take food at feeders. If you’d like to try your luck at attracting robins to feeders, know that they like their sunflower seeds hulled. They will also eat mealworms, fruit, peanut hearts and suet. Robins prefer to feed on the ground or on an open platform feeder. Robins are such friendly and engaging birds. If we can have them near us for 12 months of the year, who’s going to complain?