Laura Dean Bennett
It’s been a long, cold winter.
This is the time of year that we’re all anxious for our very last snowstorm to come and go, and we’re glad for every tiny sign of spring we can find.
So when I saw two robins in my yard last week, pecking on the wet, bare ground between the patches of remaining snow, I was overjoyed.
Just as juncos are the harbingers of winter, robins are the heralds of spring.
We may call them robins, but these beautiful songbirds are really members of the thrush family.
They are close relatives of the bluebird, the wood thrush and the veery.
The real “robin redbreast” is an old world native – an English songbird much smaller than our robin.
The robin redbreast has a bright reddish-orange throat and breast whereas the American robin has a light brown to a rich, dark brick-colored breast.
But the American robins must have reminded our forefathers of the English robins, so they named the cheerful-singing thrush after the robins from home.
I don’t think I’ve been alone in thinking that robins fly south for the winter and migrate back to us when the last snows begin to melt.
But, not all robins leave.
Bird experts tell us that there are some robins living year-round in all lower 48 states, including West Virginia.
We may think that they have gone “south” in the winter, but they may have just moved a little down the road, or into the protection of the heavy foliage in the woods.
Although most robin flocks winter in warmer climates, some are known to chance wintering in northern states, particularly during mild winters.
They roost among evergreens, surviving on winter berries like sumac, greenbrier and bittersweet.
On warm winter days or during a thaw, robins may be seen searching the ground for insects and worms.
They also eat grubs and even slugs and snails.
The sighting of robins on such days may cause us to mistakenly believe that an early spring is on the way.
The robins are harder to see in the fall and winter because they are hunting for fruit in the trees and shrubs – not where we’re used to seeing them.
If you live in some of the higher elevations of the county, your spring and summer robins may take off for Marlinton or Lewisburg and other lower elevation wintering headquarters.
By late October and early November, our robin flocks that do fly south join flocks migrating from farther north, heading for warmer weather in the south and Florida.
For the robins that stay, fall is a time of changing locales. They disappear quietly from our yards and orchards, going into the deeper, more remote woods.
If you live where the robins have a chance of spending the winter, you may want to plant more fruiting and berrying native shrubs within sight of your windows for a chance of winter robin viewing.
Good choices for these plants would be: American Holly (Ilex opaca), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Cranberry Viburnum (Vibur- num trilobum) and Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).
Where robins are seen in these parts during the winter, they may be tempted to bird feeders with bread crumbs, cottage cheese, meal worms and sometimes crumbled suet spread on the ground.
Some bird lovers have had success offering robins dried crabapples, elderberries, blueberries and raspberries saved from their summer and fall gatherings.
Something else I didn’t know about robins is that they were on the menu in some parts of the country.
In years past, huge flocks of robins were netted and killed in some states in the south, where robin pie was considered a delicacy.
Fortunately, federal laws were enacted which protected all songbirds, and this practice came to an end.
Usually by sometime in February or early March, robins begin their northward migration.
By mid-March, robins are a common sight in West Virginia and on warm spring mornings they can be heard singing their beautiful songs.
Soon, they will begin their courtship rituals.
Male robins will be seen chasing each other around, trying to establish and defend their territories.
Many people experience persistent attacks by male robins – pecking windows or other shiny, polished surfaces.
These robins have been fooled into thinking that their reflected image is an interloper, invading their nesting territories.
Robins build nests everywhere – from the ground to the tops of trees, but they usually favor a place which provides support and cover from rain.
Common locations include forks of evergreen tree branches, deciduous trees and shrubs, and many man-made sites such as building ledges, window sills, porch gables, or on top of outside lights.
Females usually do the nest building, with grass, twigs, weeds and stiff grass stems and sometimes string, rags, or other debris.
The nest can be an untidy-looking structure, but inside is a deep cup lined with smooth mud and soft grass.
During construction, the female uses her bill and feet at the same time to weave the nest – smoothing and shaping the mud lining with her breast.
The nesting season begins in April, and two and sometimes three broods are raised in a season.
From three to six, but on average four, unmarked, tiny pastel blue eggs are laid.
The female sits on her eggs for about two weeks.
Both parents feed the babies who will be ready to leave the nest in about 14 or 16 days.
Unlike their parents, the fledglings’ breasts are spotted, revealing the “thrush” in their lineage.
At this time, the young ones are very vulnerable to predators because they may be able to fly to the ground, but often they are not strong enough to fly back up to a safer perch.
Robin parents can be seen shopping for food all day.
They hop around in lawns and fields in search of insects – beetles, ants, grasshoppers, and, especially, earthworms and grubs.
Contrary to what many of us may have thought, robins locate earthworms by sight, not by sound, even though they cock their heads in a gesture that resembles intense listening.
When the last brood of the summer has been reared, robins change their habits and haunts again.
Their cheerful songs are hardly ever heard now, and they start re-assembling into flocks and go searching for wild fruits.
Thus making robins important distributors and planters of many of our wild fruits.
Also in the summer, robins begin to gather together in their flock and roost at night.
By August, birds in these roosts may number in the thousands as they again prepare for their annual southward migrations.
If it’s been a particularly hard winter for them, many of our year-round robins won’t have survived.
That means that the ones that do reappear in our yards this spring, are even that much more precious.
May robins be in all of your yards soon.