More Birds Forgetting To
Head South For The Winter
By Mary Esch

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Flocks of robins, traditionally regarded as harbingers of spring, have been descending on snowy Northern gardens and hedgerows in surprising numbers this winter. Does their presence herald an early spring?
Not necessarily.
While many robins flock to the sunny South in winter, there have always been some hardy souls who remain to wing it up North. In recent years, however, the number of overwintering robins has risen.
Ornithologists and bird enthusiasts have various opinions about what is going on with the orange-breasted birds. Theories include include global warming, fewer farms and sturdier birds.
Robins aren't the only warmth-loving birds that have grown increasingly common in colder climes. But they've gotten the most attention, perhaps because they're easy to identify and are associated with springtime.
"All over the Northeast, as far west as Michigan, people have been reporting robins where they've never seen them before, or in unusual numbers," said Wes Hochachka, an ornithologist who monitors bird populations at Cornell University.
Hochachka compiles data from Project Feeder Watch, a survey of backyard bird populations as reported by volunteers across the country.
"There are dueling opinions about what might be happening," Hochachka said. One theory is that robins which always have wintered here are being noticed more, because they're congregating closer to residential areas."
"My opinion is that they're moving northward, that it's essentially an early spring migration," Hochachka said. "They've been in fairly large flocks, whereas overwintering birds are usually in ones or twos. And they're behaving as migrating birds do, feeding madly."
"This year is clearly unusual," Hochachka said. "We've also been getting phone calls and e-mails about flocks of red-winged blackbirds and common grackles," species that usually winter from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico.
Near Poughkeepsie, about 70 miles north of New York City, people have been calling the local newspaper in recent weeks, baffled by unusual numbers of robins. One man counted 150 in his yard one day, gorging on cedar berries.
"We have thousands and thousands of birds," Joanne Robisheaux of Wingdale told the Poughkeepsie Journal, noting that they were roosting in trees near her housing development. "The sky is black with them."
In summer, robins eat worms, grubs, and other insects. In winter, those that remain up North switch to berries and sometimes suet from birdfeeders. Their diet includes the fruit of hawthorn, buckthorn, mountain ash, holly, wild grapes, cedar, crabapple, sumac and multiflora rose.
Experienced birders say robins have long been more common in winter than most people think.
"Conventional wisdom is that they come in spring," said Bill Lee of the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club. "But there always are overwintering robins here."
It does appear that there are more than usual this year, said Lee, who lives near Schenectady. In the 1998 Audubon Christmas Bird Count, Schenectady County birders reported nearly 2,600 robins, more than any year since the local club started doing the annual one-day count 70 years ago, Lee said.
But a one-day count can be misleading. "A lot of it is timing, and where you look," said Rich Guthrie, a seasoned birder whose home overlooks the Hudson River south of Albany.
About eight winters ago, Guthrie visited a dense stand of pines near the Hudson River and counted about 100,000 robins flying in to roost. A one-day count could miss such a flock if the birds were concealed in the trees.
"There's just anecdotal information to go on, but my sense is that robins have been increasing over the last few decades," said Guthrie, who's retired from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "I remember when a robin in winter was an unusual sight. Now, it's expected."
Robins aren't the only birds on the rise. "I delight at the song of my Carolina wrens out back," Guthrie said. "When I was growing up, you didn't see them around. There also has been a dramatic increase in mockingbirds."
About 30 species of birds have expanded their range northward in the past 25 to 30 years, including orchard orioles, boat-tailed grackles, blue grosbeaks, cerulean warblers, and blue-gray gnatcatchers.
A number of factors could figure into the rise of robins and certain other songbirds, Guthrie said. Global warming may be making winters milder. Abandoned farms are being overgrown with blackberries and buckthorn. Suburban sprawl provides backyards filled with fruit-laden ornamental shrubs.
Birds that are expanding their ranges also seem to be getting hardier, Guthrie said. The population rebounds faster after a severe winter decimates the flocks.
And there are more people counting birds, which means birds that might have been overlooked in years past are now being counted.
Project Feeder Watch and the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (Feb. 19-22), joint projects of the National Audubon Society and Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology, seek to shed more light on population trends by enlisting thousands of people to count birds around their homes.
One thing is certain: Robins that weather the winter have a distinct advantage over the birds returning in early spring. The early bird may get the worm, but the one who never left gets the best nesting sites.
"There's a firm rule among robins," Guthrie said. "The first male to stake out a territory prevails."
EDITOR'S NOTE: To participate in Project Feeder Watch or the Great Backyard Bird Count, call 1-800-843-BIRD, or visit the Web site at <