Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Article ideas come to me from all sorts of places. Some of you may know, and many of you may not know that I work as the Horticulture Educator not only in Macon County, but in Piatt County as well. While I was in Piatt County this week, we noticed a couple of robins hopping around the sidewalk outside the front door of the office.
Everyone, myself included, thought it was a bit odd to see robins in January. We wondered what in the world they would eat around here in January. Didn't they get the message that they were supposed to fly south for the winter?
Cornell University has a website that is full of information on hundreds of bird species: www.allaboutbirds.org . According to this website, it is possible that the American robin, so commonly referred to as a sign of spring in this area, may in fact spend the entire year here and not migrate south for the winter.
If robins overwinter in a particular area, they will spend most of their time roosting in trees and shrubs, so we don't see them very much. The number of robins that don't migrate south from a particular area depends on the local weather. So perhaps some of our local robins never found it cold enough or food lacking enough to migrate south to a warmer locale.
Another explanation I've heard about recent robin sightings is that they are robins that were spending the summer months much farther north. They began their journey south this fall and stopped in Illinois. The weather was decent, so they never continued their flight to warmer weather.
Whatever the explanation, it turns out that it is not all that unusual to see a robin in central Illinois in January. There is a great resource, co-sponsored by Cornell University and the Audubon Society at http://ebird.org that allows users to interact with local maps to view where and when particular species of birds have been seen. If you look at the distribution of American robins in Illinois in January, you will see that they are fewer in number than during warmer times of the year, but they are here.
There is also an opportunity to record your own sightings of birds through the ebird website. Individuals can register on the site and record their own bird observations. These observations are then part of the data accessible by anyone visiting the site. Researchers use the observations recorded through this site for analysis of bird migrations and species distribution as part of conservation efforts and gaining knowledge about particular species. The amount of data collected by the ebird project is astounding. In January 2010 alone, users logged 1.5 million bird sightings!
Fortunately for the American robin, they fall into the category of "least concern" as far as conservation is concerned. Robins are one of the most common birds seen in Illinois landscapes, typically hunting for earthworms in lawns.
One big question that came up while we watched the birds hop around outside the office door at the Piatt County office was, "What in the world do they eat in January? There are no worms in January."
Robins prefer to eat invertebrates such as earthworms, grubs and insects, as well as fruits and berries. During the summer months they tend to eat more invertebrates, and during the winter they eat more fruits and berries. Some studies have shown that robins tend to eat more earthworms in the morning, and more fruits and berries late in the day. It's important to note that robins are potentially very vulnerable to any chemicals applied to lawns, since they spend much of their time foraging for earthworms and other invertebrates there.
Most homeowners have had a robin build a nest somewhere on their property at some time or another. Robins can potentially produce three broods of young each year. But only 40% of nests built will successfully produce young. From those nests that produce young, only 25% of those young will survive until November. Only about half of all robins survive from one year to the next, and approximately every six years the population turns over entirely. The longest recorded lifespan of a robin was nearly 14 years old.
Most American robins have a grey-brown back, darker brown head, and red breast. There are a few mutations out there that may make you look twice if you are lucky enough to spot one.
Last spring I had a gentleman call the Piatt office describing a bird he saw that he swore was a robin with a white breast. No one I knew had ever seen such a thing. The Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan Dearborn recorded a sighting of a white breasted robin in November 2009 and posted this picture on their website. The particular bird they observed had a white breast, and a few white and deformed wing feathers. This pattern of unusual coloring and deformed feathers is thought to be a genetic mutation affecting production of feather pigments. There have been other similar patterns observed, such as a robin with a red breast and white back and head.
The technical term for these oddly colored robins is leucism, meaning there are defects in the pigment producing cells in particular parts of the bird. It may be a single feather, or larger areas of the bird's body, but not all pigment is affected. The feathers may appear totally white or have a pale washed out appearance. This is different from albinism. An albino animal is totally white, lacking any pigment over its entire body.
Even though the winter seems to last forever this time of year, sooner or later spring will arrive and so will more robins. In the meantime, you may be tempted to try and feed the robins that are sticking it out this winter. It's not common for robins to visit feeders, but they may enjoy some fruit, mealworms or bread from a ground feeder if the weather is particularly bad. Even though I now know that some robins stay in the area for the winter, I still like to think that these winter robin sightings are a sign of an early spring. It doesn't hurt to dream!