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March 8, 2014 / Leslie

Weekend Birding: American Robin – A Harbinger of Spring?

Is it Spring Yet?

Does the first sighting of a robin in the northern states mean spring is here? Maybe, but maybe not.

In the autumn robins typically gather into flocks and vanish from the backyards. Northerners assume they migrate south to warmer climates and move back in the spring, but in recent decades their behavior has changed.

Don’t Robins Migrate?

Robins from the northernmost parts of the US and Canada do move south. Forty years ago it was rare to see a robin during the winter in Illinois, but in the past few decades sightings have become more common. Robins have been routinely observed during the Audubon Christmas bird counts and I often see them in groups when out walking on the nature trails.

American Robin

What has changed?

Birds don’t migrate because of the cold, they leave when food supplies are scarce. Migration is risky, and if birds can avoid making a long trip into unfamiliar territory, they will stay local or move short distances. The short answer to what has changed for the robin is the availability of food.

In the summer robins eat insects and worms, in the winter they eat berries. The explosion of buckthorn, honeysuckle and other invasive fruit bearing shrubs has allowed more birds to remain in northern climates than ever before.

American Robin

We don’t know if the robins we see in the winter are the same ones that were here during the summer. They could be flocks from Minnesota or Canada, and my Illinois robins may have gone to Missouri. Then again, they may be the same robins that are here in the summer.

This past winter, which was harsh even by Chicago standards, robins would routinely stop by the backyard for berries from my Eastern Cedar Tree and grab a quick drink at the heated bird bath.

Where are we seeing robins this winter?

I generated this map using eBird to show where robins have been observed this winter from December through February. The darker the color, the higher the frequency of sightings. Clicking on the image will take you to the real-time map where you can zoom in for a closer look at the locations.

[eBird generated map of Robin sightings Dec 2013 - Feb 2014.]

[eBird generated map of Robin sightings Dec 2013 – Feb 2014.]

eBird is a real-time online checklist program. Birders and citizen scientists enter their observations into the eBird database. Reports and maps can be generated for individual bird species showing their abundance and distribution at a point in time.

So, Is the Robin A Harbinger of Spring?

Depending on where you live, the sight of a robin will still mean spring is near. For me, when I see them scouting my yard in pairs and arguing over nesting territory, spring has arrived. After this winter, that can’t happen soon enough.


Saturday Snapshot was originated by Alyce at At Home With Books. It is now hosted by Melinda of West Metro Mommy. Visit her blog to see more great photos or add your own.

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Leave a Comment
  1. Louise / Mar 8 2014 5:26 am

    I hope you get your spring soon. Great photos, and interesting post as always Leslie, thanks.


  2. brokencookiesdontcount / Mar 8 2014 5:45 am

    Great photos! My husband and I have been so excited to see the birds coming back to our yard. Have a great day!


  3. Sean @ His and Her Hobbies / Mar 8 2014 6:32 am

    Awesome photos! I am jealous as I am usually not able to get close enough to be able to photograph birds that closely even with a large zoom lens. The weather has bounced up and down so much this winter I don’t know when to expect spring.


    • Leslie / Mar 8 2014 1:08 pm

      Robins are one of the more approachable birds and they will even sit still for a few minutes. When I first started taking bird photos I would practice on them.


  4. BermudaOnion / Mar 8 2014 8:35 am

    We see lots of robins around here all year so they’re not a sign of spring for us. Your photos are wonderful, as usual.


    • Leslie / Mar 8 2014 1:09 pm

      You probably see more of them in the winter than in the summer.


  5. Arti / Mar 8 2014 10:08 am

    I was told that Robins do stay here, but seldom do I see them or hear them in mid-winter. I’ve only seen Bohemian Waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks eating leftover fruits from my trees in the backyard. I’m sure Robins are around nestled up somewhere. That map is quite something. I can see a few purple spots in Southern Alberta, my neck of the woods. The sure signs are showing, after all, we turn our clock ahead tonight. Spring won’t be too far behind.


    • Leslie / Mar 8 2014 1:16 pm

      When I looked at that map I was surprised to see robins that far north but I suppose there’s always a few that find a place with food to ride out the winter.

      For the past few years a small flock of Yellow Warblers would overwinter at one of the parks where I go on bird walks. That is not a bird that would normally stay in Chicago but there are seeds, nuts and fruit available plus a small amount of open water so they do survive.


  6. acuriousgal / Mar 8 2014 10:34 am

    I haven’t seen any Robins so I’ll just enjoy your beautiful pics


  7. laurelrainsnow / Mar 8 2014 10:35 am

    I love your photos and facts, as sightings of “spring harbingers” are a wonderful sign. But it’s best to know what the sightings actually mean. The robin sitting on the berries is gorgeous. Thanks for sharing.


    • Leslie / Mar 8 2014 1:19 pm

      When I see robins in the winter they are usually on or near a shrub with berries on it. It’s amazing that they can switch their diet to fruit in the winter and still generate the energy necessary to survive.


  8. Sue / Mar 8 2014 11:01 am

    Great post Leslie! No early migrant robins have made it to my backyard, and the crabapples are almost bare, so there are not a lot of food resources for them this far north. I imagine we are quite some time away from spring. 😞


    • Leslie / Mar 8 2014 1:23 pm

      I haven’t seen any robins scouting territory yet – they stop in groups to eat cedar berries – but the cardinal is high in tree trying to get up the enthusiasm to sing with all the snow still on the ground.


  9. Geraldine / Mar 8 2014 11:48 am

    for sure! I love seeing the first robin of spring, so hopeful. 🙂


  10. Sandra Nachlinger / Mar 8 2014 12:27 pm

    Beautiful photos. I’m always amazed when people are able to capture pictures of birds, something I’ve tried without success. Thanks for the robin migration map too. Very interesting. I live near Seattle — a dark purple color on your map. Seems like I see robins almost year round.


    • Leslie / Mar 8 2014 1:25 pm

      Bird photos take a lot of patience and a little luck.


  11. Vicki / Mar 8 2014 1:17 pm

    Beautiful photos as usual!


  12. Ginny / Mar 8 2014 3:50 pm

    American robins look so different to our British ones. I wonder if they are related, or just have the name in common.


    • Leslie / Mar 8 2014 3:59 pm

      No, not related. The American Robin is a member of the Thrush family. Early settlers called them robins because their red breast reminded them of the robins back home.


  13. jkb4664 / Mar 8 2014 4:28 pm

    I too am anxious to see the birds return or at least to become more visible. I have been saving my tiny strings and strips of quilting scraps in an suet basket. I hope to hang it soon for nest building material supplement. That would be so fun to see a bit of blue or yellow I recognize in a nest nearby.


    • Leslie / Mar 9 2014 11:21 am

      The birds will love you for that. I put strings and building materials by the compost pile and they pick it out of there. I tried the suet basket and they ignored it.


  14. Diane@BibliophilebytheSea / Mar 8 2014 6:49 pm

    This was interesting. I hadn’t noticed any robins here all winter, until today (30s today)


    • Leslie / Mar 9 2014 11:19 am

      Unless you have shrubs or trees with winter fruit nearby you probably won’t see them too often.


  15. Nise' (Under the Boardwalk) / Mar 8 2014 8:03 pm

    I have not spotted a Robin in a few months. I did see a Blue Jay yesterday.


    • Leslie / Mar 9 2014 11:17 am

      A pair of Blue Jays showed up in my yard last week. They are beautiful but like to scream and terrorize the little birds off the feeders.


  16. susanmillerlindquist / Mar 8 2014 8:47 pm

    Yup! They hung around our area all winter … southern New Hampshire. I felt so bad for them during the really cold weather, as there was nothing for them at our back yard feeder, but they came and watched the other seed eaters foraging at the feeders …


    • Leslie / Mar 9 2014 11:17 am

      When my Magnolia tree died last year I replaced it with a Serviceberry. Once it starts producing berries it should help the robins and other fruit eaters in the winter. I’ve tried putting apples on the ground but the robins don’t go for it – the squirrels and the bunnies do.


  17. Suko / Mar 9 2014 11:08 pm

    Very beautiful photos, as always! I hope spring arrives soon for you, Leslie.


  18. stacybuckeye / Mar 10 2014 10:37 am

    It’s been so nice to see the birds out and about these past few days. And thanks for the migration lesson. I choose to believe the birds I see have been around since last year 🙂


    • Leslie / Mar 16 2014 12:15 am

      At lot of them are year-round residents and some people think robins come back to the same area each year.


  19. Carol / Mar 12 2014 9:50 am

    That’s so funny, because my daughter was just telling me the same thing the other day. Apparently someone had seen a robin and thought it meant spring, but she disagreed. We’re on the east edge of Ohio.


    • Leslie / Mar 16 2014 12:13 am

      She’s right! Robins were in my yard again today but they were only looking for food and a drink at the heated bird bath.


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