Washington Evening Journal
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Neighbors Growing Together | May 25, 2017

Tracks and Tales: Heralds of Spring?

By Pam Holz

“Yea!” celebrates the Facebook post, “I’ve spotted the first robin of spring.  Warmer weather must be on its way!”  A photo of the common bird on a lawn half-covered in snow accompanies the text.  
I would love to believe the sentiment.  Two months of frigid weather intermixed with very pretty, but easily blown snow has no doubt exhausted the patience of most of us.  A sign of spring – any sign at all – would be very welcome right now.  
However, robins forecast spring no more than groundhogs do.   
The American Robin is probably one of the best known birds in America.  Most people, even those not into birds, can identify this regular lawn resident.  It’s not a particularly showy bird like the bright cardinal or blue jay.  Instead, we recognize this bird through its commonness.  
The robin is not very picky.  It can find food in wood lots, lawns, parks, fields, on mountains, and even on the tundra.  We often think of robins eating worms for dinner, but even there, they are not so particular.  Other food in their diet includes insects, berries, fruit, and snails.  Although they prefer to nest on low branches in trees, you can find them higher up, on eaves, gutters, other house fixtures, on cliffs, and, interestingly, on the ground in the prairie.  
What does this all mean for spring?  
First, we need to revisit why birds migrate.  While we as people may complain most about the cold during winter, wild animals tolerate it much better.  Instead, the main factor that provokes birds to head south is not temperatures, but lack of food.  Thus insect eaters such as flycatchers, wrens, and meadowlarks migrate.  Nectar feeders like hummingbirds and birds that hunt in open water like herons wing south.  
Migration is tough.  It requires a lot of energy to make the trip.  Traveling makes one vulnerable to more predators, bad weather, and changes in the landscape.  Finally, at the winter grounds, one may not only be competing for resources with other migrants, but the natives as well.  
Basically, if you don’t need to migrate, don’t.  And the robin is an omnivore – it eats both plants and animals.  For most robins south of Canada, a change in weather may just mean a change in diet and specific location.  
Why don’t we see them, then?  Obviously, when we have a foot of snow on the ground, robins aren’t popping in and out of our yards, looking for worms.  Instead, they focus more on eating woodland berries.  Flocks of them can be seen in area timbers throughout the entire winter.   We often don’t visit these areas during cold snaps so miss them.  Sometimes flocks remain in town, roosting in trees and eating dried crabapples and other fruit.  Since they are less out in the open, we don’t notice them as easily.  
The last flock of robins I spotted was on a cloudy, gloomy 10-degree day.  Spring may be right around the corner, but I know because my calendar says so.  The robins themselves don’t seem to care.