- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 <http://www.birds.cornell.edu www.birds.cornell.edu