I was exploring my swamp recently when I found a dead American robin. There was nothing more than feathers and a small amount of blood left in the snow among some fir trees.
As surprised as I was to discover the scene, I was more surprised by the conversations I had with people afterward. I encountered a lot of skepticism about this “winter robin.” People told me I couldn’t have seen what I saw. After hearing that from a few folks, I decided to set the record straight.
With their bright orange breast and bold behavior, American robins are familiar to many people. The robin’s return has long been considered a sign that spring has arrived. But even though they have “migrate” in their scientific name (Turdus migratorius), robins don't always migrate! In most of the continental US, they’re year-round birds. They won't fly south unless they’re forced to do so by harsh winter conditions or lack of food.
The reason we think of robins as spring and summer residents isn’t because they migrate. It’s because their behavior changes throughout the year.
The “spring” robins we’re used to seeing want nothing more than to secure the best breeding spots. This desire brings robins literally into our backyards, because robins are one of the few animals that can survive in turf grass.
As spring moves along, robins begin nest building. Robin nests aren’t subtle to the observant eye. They’re constructed mostly with grass, twigs, and mud, and they tend to be large as songbird nests go. In the wild robins build these nests low in trees, but in developed areas you can spot them in gutters, sheds, outdoor lights, and hanging plants. These nesting places may gain the ire of a homeowner, but they’re perfect for protecting robins and babies from predators and for positioning the birds close to the lawn for an easy earthworm snack.
These open, obvious habits allow us to see a lot of robins in spring and summer. But once the nesting season winds down in late summer, robins’ behavior changes. Most notably, their diet shifts from worms and insects to fruit. In my swamp, I've watched “winter” robins eat the fruits of hawthorns, wild grapes, Virginia creeper, and cherries. They’re also known to eat many other fruits including those of dogwood, sumac, and juniper.
One place they won’t find much fruit is in your lawn. To get enough food to make it through winter, robins leave turf grass behind in the fall and head to more fertile areas like vine-filled hedgerows and shrubby areas. Because these places are more secluded than right smack in our front yards, we often assume the robins have migrated. But they’re likely still around, just out of sight, waiting for the snow to melt before returning to our lawns in the spring.