Is it Spring Yet?
I ask this question every year. It seems like the minute the calendar says it’s spring, the cold, and sometimes even snow, returns. So I take my cues from the local wildlife. Yesterday I saw a chipmunk in the backyard, birds have been singing, and the winter flocks of robins have broken up and they are scouting the area for nesting spots.
Is the American Robin a harbinger of spring?
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.
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.
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.
Where did we see robins this winter?
I generated the map below using eBird to show where robins have been observed from December 2016 through February 2017. The darker the color, the higher the frequency of sightings.
Clicking on the image will take you to the real-time map. It is interactive and you can zoom in for a closer look at the locations. You can also change the date range at the top of the page to compare this to sighting in previous years.
What is eBird?
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 may still mean spring is near. For me, when I see them scouting my yard in pairs and arguing over nesting territory, spring has truly arrived.
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