Winter Robins

(This column was first published in the February 1, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    One of the pleasures of spring is being taken away this winter.

    Many of us won't enjoy that special moment in early March when we see our first robin of the oncoming season. We won't because we have been seeing robins all winter.

    A few robins stay with us every winter and the number has been increasing each year. The National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Counts reflect this trend. The average statewide in the 1960s was about 1000, in the 1970s almost 3000, and in the 1980s just under 5000, all this in the face of a 15 percent decline in the population of breeding robins across the state.

    The winter population has indeed increased but this year's numbers are still extraordinary. I have received more calls about flocks of robins this winter than about any other recent topic. I have seen several thousand myself, mostly along the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario.

    In fact, the phenomenon is not just local. Internet messages from across the state and in particular from Rochester and Oswego cite similar experiences. And a Minnesota teacher is collecting national data about these numbers.

    The common refrain is, "Why is this happening?"

    It is interesting to speculate and I will do so, but with a major reservation. Like most explanations for natural events, mine will be guesses -- guesses based on data and experience, but still guesses.

    After the record-breaking cold and snow of January it is difficult for us to recall the protracted fall that preceded it. We had a long, warm and especially dry autumn. (In fact, those generally higher temperatures contributed to our lake effect snow in January by keeping Lake Erie relatively warm and entirely ice-free until mid-month.)

    That mild fall may well have proved too much of a temptation for the robins, delaying their response to the inbred urges that normally pull birds to the south.

    Like blackbirds and crows, robins retreat to roosts at night, the size of those roosts increasing through the summer until some wooded areas are filled with thousands of these birds. One a few miles south of Albany contained over 50,000 robins in the late fall and early winter of 1984 and Alan Klonick tells me of a similar roost, not quite as large, south of Rochester.

    Perhaps in those flocks, just as there are instinct-driven bird conversations -- "Well, Red-breast, it seems like time to head south." -- there are also climate-driven responses -- "Hey mate, why hurry? There's still plenty of food around and can you beat this weather?"

    Why hurry indeed? Because January was lurking around the corner. Whatever the cause of their delay, it caught impressive numbers of these birds too far north.

    I think that we are seeing so many robins near the large lakes because they are retreating along their established spring migration routes. In spring their northward movements are blocked by Lakes Erie and Ontario and most follow the lakeshores east until they turn north again the other side of Oswego.

    Meanwhile they are subsisting mostly on tree fruits. Some of you may have observed a flock stripping an ornamental fruit tree of its berries in a few hours. Leftover apples in lakeside orchards are also helping.

    But an ice storm will threaten them severely. If that occurs, you might put out on the ground bunches of grapes or apple halves. A day or two of that sort of assistance could save some robin lives.

    And if you look closely, you can still enjoy your early March pleasure. The first returning robins are the larger, brighter-orange-breasted Labrador subspecies. -- Gerry Rising