Monday, November 12, 2012

Adirondack Birds: A Tough Season for the Robin

The time of migration for some birds, and their eventual destination, are very predictable. For others, however, it is impossible to say when they exit the general region and where they are going, other than somewhere south. One bird in this last group, illustrating the individualistic behavior patterns of the members of a single species, is the robin.

Along with being a harbinger of spring and ranking as our nation’s number one backyard bird, this orange-breasted songster has no set response to the lessening daylight and the onset of cold, other than to fatten up for the coming winter and eventually travel to a more hospitable climate.

The robin is well known for hopping across lawns in search of worms, grubs, crickets and other invertebrates during its lengthy nesting season. Yet, as autumn approaches, its preference for food changes from protein enriched entities to items that contain sugary carbohydrates. While some seeds are occasionally ingested, berries become the food of choice for this member of the thrush family.

The small, but sweet strawberries present in many Adirondack fields and yards in late June and early July, along with the tasteless fruits of Juneberry are among the first crops targeted by the robin. As the growing season progresses and blueberries begin to ripen, this bird starts to noticeably increase its intake of such wild treats. Later in summer, raspberries and blackberries are utilized as a source of nourishment, as are choke cherries and in more heavily wooded setting, wild black cherries. In mid autumn, several additional sources of fruit may become available to the robin; however, with the end of the growing season, the availability of fresh produce becomes drastically limited.

Since nearly all shrubs, trees and ground plants that form berries prefer to grow in open settings, the robin concentrates its time in these sunny locations. The landscape within a village or a sprawling suburban community supports many berry bearing bushes, which is why this bird is known to congregate in such populated places.

Yet, despite the robin’s acceptance of human presence, and its use of some man-made structures, like a garage, porch or wood shed for its nest, this bird is most reluctant to accept a handout that has been placed in a feeder. Purchasing a pint or two of blueberries or raspberries and placing these juicy morsels in a feeder typically ends with these items being eaten by a mouse that was able to gain access to the feeder.

Fruits that fail to fall from twigs and have dried over the weeks are routinely collected by scavenging robins when November arrives, as are those that have dropped to the ground and lie beneath the plant. During a good berry year, it is quite common to encounter several robins scouring the forest floor under a cherry tree, or working the carpet of dead leaves in a thicket in an attempt to uncover dried fruits.

As pickings become slimmer, increasing numbers of robins abandon our region and head to warmer places. Researchers have noted that there is no set time frame for the departure of this bird, as some older and more resourceful individuals are able to find enough to satisfy their appetite and remain for weeks after most other robins have left. Some robins are known to travel only as far as southern New York before they locate a source of wild grapes, dogwood berries or a patch of poorly harvested blueberries in which they can find enough to eat to prevent freezing to death. The recent series of mild winters has also kept many robins from traveling into the mid-latitude regions of the nation, or the Deep South.

This year, around my house, there was a general lack of berries because of the exceptionally dry weather this summer. As a result, for the past several weeks, robins have been few and far between in my neighborhood. I realize that scattered showers throughout the summer allowed the crop of berries in some locations to flourish. The nomadic nature of the robin in autumn causes this creature to visit many different settings, and once it locates such a site, it may remain there into December.

Seeing a robin in March is always an uplifting experience, and for bird enthusiasts, catching sight of one after Veteran’s day is also noteworthy. This fall has not been a good one in my neck of the woods; however, there are probably places in which this familiar member of our summer wildlife community may still be seen for several more weeks.

Photo: American Robin, courtesy Wikimedia.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

One Response

  1. Enjoyed the post, Tom. I live in Saskatchewan about 52.8º north, and I saw a pair of robins still here last week. We have had snow since the middle of October and our weather has been fairly consistently below freezing, so I was surprised to see them.
    They must be a hardy pair, and still finding good food sources.

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