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The robins are back!

2022 03 20 robins are backBy David J. Hawke -- The robins are back!

As one of the sought-after spring icons, the sight of a red-breasted robin bob-bob-bobbing along in the yard is a real spirit lifter. Oh sure, there have been other, earlier signs of spring… crows calling, red maple buds swelling, mourning doves cooing, chickadees whistling their “sweet spring” call… but a robin in the yard seems to have direct impact on most everyone.

And with these early sightings comes the usual anxiety of what will they eat? Robins eat worms and, well, the ground is still frozen solid! OMG! They’re all gonna die!

Relax. Yes, robins are great at finding those earthworms that burrow through your lawn, but these birds are in the thrush family, which means they can find and eat other things just fine.

Right now the fruits and berries that have adorned your garden shrubs all winter long are ripe and will be sought after by not only robins, but by waxwings (both Cedar and Bohemian) and grosbeaks (mainly Pine), as well. This is obviously one of the rewards to your meticulous garden planting scheme of including food plants and shelter plants for all seasons.

While robins do indeed migrate, they are no record holders for distances travelled. Being reasonably hardy, they need but escape the worst of winter, which means the southward leg of the trip needs only to extend to the lower Great Lakes. Some years, the farthest south they go is Hamilton, Guelph and Niagara.

The robins gather in winter flocks of a few birds to several dozen individuals. Flock behaviour is a great way to dodge predators (like falcons and hawks) while sharing the locations of good food sources. Some people even have heated bird baths set up, although I caution against their use as the water can freeze to the feather once away from the robin spa.

As the day’s amount of sunlight lengthens, the pituitary gland in the robin (and everything else) stimulates the bird to begin seeking a mate and set up a nesting territory. The birds may well have been quite chummy in their winter flocks, but now each one is suspiciously eying the other, trying to decide if perhaps they should make the break and head north. First one, then another, sand suddenly the whole flock wants to move out!

There is a website I enjoy viewing, called Journey North, created by the University of Wisconsin. People register and submit their wildlife observations and Journey North compiles these observations on a map that shows the daily progress of species like robins, hummingbirds, monarch butterflies, swallows and more. The map is animated so you can see how the dots of know sighting show the movement of the species. Check it out.

If you can get a close view of a bird, check out the colour of the head: black crown and nape are males, while a grey crown and nape are females.  Last year’s young will have now molted away that spotted breast pattern and may now look like the females.

One of the field marks of a flying robin are two white dots on the tips of the outer tail feathers. Rather easy to see, actually. But if you are a national traveller, when you see a robin in British Columbia these white spots are missing. Great bit of robin trivia for your next dinner conversation.

I’m getting ahead of myself here, but most of you have probably seen a robin’s egg in the past. The blue colour is actually trademarked as “robin’s egg blue” (just as the blue on the wing of a blue-winged teal is called “teal blue”). The blue pigment is caused by biliverdin, something that the female robin adds to the egg as it’s being formed.

Some studies done over Kingston way by Queen’s University have determined that the brighter blue the egg, the more likely the male will respond to helping out with soon-to-arrive youngsters. So heathy female robins produce higher levels of biliverdin to help keep George’s attention and encourage him to be a family man.

On a gloomy March day a few decades ago, I looked out the window and saw the first robins of that season. Inspired, I wrote the following poem, entitled Spring!:

“The robins are back! The robins are back!
I just saw a flock of three,
Sitting together, cold and forlorn,
Huddled in the crab apple tree.

The robins are back! The robins are back!
I just saw a flock of three;
They herald the spring and lift the spirits
Of people like you and me!”

Dave’s Notebook: Must say, I REALLY enjoyed that plus 18 day of sunshine earlier this month! Of course that was balanced by having my laneway washed out by the meltwaters. Ah, the yin and yang of March.

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© 2022 David J. Hawke

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