Many people associate seeing a Robin in early March as the unofficial start of spring. Truth is that many Robins don’t migrate south at all. Check their year round range in the map section of your favourite field guide and you will see that it extends into eastern Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. So why do these birds seem to disappear come fall and into winter?
Robins feed on a variety of food: earthworms, insects, as well as fruits and berries. In the spring rising temperatures and warm rains melt the snow, making flooded lawns and gardens the perfect place to spot Robins foraging on worms, grubs, and insects. This is when many see their first Robin of the year and proclaim spring to be here. During the fall and winter months a Robin’s diet consists mostly of fruit and berries, so they are not likely to be seen hopping across a snow covered lawn in search of food. Look for them to be roosting in the canopies or thick underbrush of trees and shrubs that produce berries such as Buckthorns, Hawthorns or Dogwoods. Two areas I have had luck finding Robins in winter are, along rivers where Buckthorn lined banks provide shelter from the wind and plenty of food, and low swampy areas adjacent to ponds with fruit bearing trees around.
During spring and summer, Robins can be heard singing and calling before sunrise and after sunset. In winter Robins are less vocal, making their presence seldom known. The opposite behavior from spring to fall gives this bird the illusion of disappearing from an area, when in fact their numbers could still be quite high. On a recent walk along my local river I caught an orange flash out of the corner of my eye. I glanced over and saw that a Robin had landed in a tree next to the path. I paused for some photos and could hear the fluttering of many wing beats. Glancing up into the trees I could see several Robins gorging themselves on berries. I lowered my lens, began to count, and quickly reached thirty birds. These Robins were a mere arms length from the path, and because of their stealthy behavior, almost went unnoticed by me. On this particular day the wind chill was -22C, but the abundance of food had plenty of Robins still in the area.
Next time you are out doing some winter birding pay special attention to the thick underbrush and canopies of fruit producing trees and shrubs. There is a pretty good chance you will come across a Robin giving you a false hope of spring.