Frequently Asked Questions about Robins: Wintering

Q. What do robins wintering in the north eat?

A. Robins switch diets in fall. They turn from earthworms to berries and other fruits. Because some forms of fruit
(such as mountain ash berries and crab apples) remain available all winter long even in the north, a few robins can stay in an area with food enough to support them all winter. These robins are most often found in areas where there is a bit of open water from a nearby spring, stream, river, or large lake, and where there are fruit trees. The water and fruit get them through the season.

Q. Doesn't a robin know enough to migrate south? I live in Canada (or one of the northern states). There is a robin wintering in my neighborhood.

A. Robins are a migratory species, but their migration is far more complicated than simply a shift southward. There seems to be a great deal of individual variation in where they spend the winter, though males are far more likely to remain in the north than females. There are good reasons. Come spring, the male’s main job is to find and defend a territory. The females’ main job is to create and lay the eggs. This requires a lot of good nutrition and food energy, so females go where they are sure of good food supplies in winter. Yes, they have to use up food energy to migrate north. But migrating and laying eggs are easier for well-nourished birds.

Q. Won't the cold hurt robins? There are robins staying in our town in Ontario all winter. Next week the temperatures are supposed to be lower than 20 below zero.

A. Cold temperatures don't hurt most birds—as long as they have food. As nights grow cooler during fall, northern birds start growing more down feathers close to their bodies. These feathers work like a down jacket. The down feathers insulate the birds, keeping the heat of their bodies inside. The robins make their body heat by shivering; as long as they have food to give them energy, they can survive extreme cold.

Q. Should I be feeding a robin wintering in my backyard? I live in northern Minnesota.

A. Robins only spend the winter in areas where there is some food available, so feeding them isn't necessary. Nevertheless, a lot of people enjoy offering them food, creating a special bond with this homey and pleasant bird. Robins will NOT take birdseed. Sometimes they'll take frozen fruit, though it's often hard to teach them that fruit in a feeder is food! (Robins learn at an early age that fruit grows on trees and shrubs. They simply do not expect to find it anywhere else.) One of the best kinds of food for wintering robins—and the easiest for them to discover—is mealworms. You can put out a dozen mealworms on a sunny day when the temperature is above freezing, and nearby robins will often notice their wiggly movements and investigate. Once robins discover the mealworms, they'll come back even when the temperature is below freezing and the mealworms are stiff. Then if you start offering fruit in the same spot, the robins are more likely to notice it. Some favorite robin foods are blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. You might as well buy bags of frozen fruit for them, since it will freeze outside anyway!

Mike Houle developed this heated birdbath system for feeding his wintering robins.

One of Journey North's correspondents from Wisconsin used a heated bird bath to keep mealworms thawed and moving. He thought this would allow him to feed his whole flock of wintering robins, but one of the robins took over and defended the bird bath food source against all the other robins in his yard. This arrangement still helped the other robins, who were sharing the fruit on neighborhood trees, because now there was one fewer bird to share with, and it made the one particular robin VERY happy!

Q. Do robins need water in the winter?

A. In northern climaes where ponds, rivers, streams and lakes freeze ove in the winter, a bird's most available water source is often snow. But it tkaes energy to melt snow. Birds needs to drink and, if possible, bathe even in the winter. Dirty feathers lose much of their insulating properties, so a clean bird is a warm bird. If you have a heated birdbath and worry about birds bathing and then being unable to fly off in sub-zero weather when the water freezes on them, you can modify the birdbat. to allow them to drink but not bathe. Cover the top of your birdbath with a pice of plastic-coated quarter- or half-inch hardware cloth. Or lace twigs or small branches across the top. Either method will allow the birds to stay dry while they drink through the openings.

Q. This winter we have seen them by the dozens and hundreds! Why? We live in Texas (also asked by Florida residents) and aren't used to seeing robins.

A. The robins have likely dropped in because they discovered a rich food source.