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Unpave the Way for Winter Robins

This report includes:

Robins in Winter?
Every autumn robins migrate south. We humans have an intuitive sense that the robins are trying to escape cold weather, but every winter at least some robins stay in the northern states and southern Canada. Robins have survived blinding blizzards, ice storms, and nights as cold as 30 below zero without human help. Regardless of how cold it is on the outside of their feathers, their body temperature under the feathers is about 104 degrees. How do they stay warm enough to survive? Their thick down feathers hold body heat in. They produce body heat by shivering. And they get the energy to shiver from their food.

Sometimes robins gather in huge flocks in winter. Doug Von Gausig found a "robin convention" of about 1000 robins near Sedona, Arizona, and recorded their chatter.

Natural Foods for Robins
What are they eating when the ground is frozen and they can't get worms? Robins in winter are mainly fruit eaters. Some fruits are so sweet and juicy in summer that birds and other wildlife eat them right away. The best winter berries are those that start out tasting too bitter to eat, and after freezing and thawing several times become tastier. Growing a winter fruit garden is a wonderful way to make life easier for wintering robins. Some of the best varieties to plant include:

Cedar Waxwing eating mountain ash berries

Robins often join Cedar Waxwing flocks in winter. (Photo by Tom Mangelson in Landscaping for Wildlife)

  • bittersweet
  • bayberry
  • snowberry
  • sumac
  • mountain ash
  • crabapple
  • hackberry
  • hawthorn
  • red cedar
  • highbush cranberry
  • chokecherry

Robins seem to need more drinking water than many other songbirds. They readily use bird baths all summer, so many robins recognize a bird bath when they see one. When they spot a bird bath in winter, they usually check it out. Heated bird baths are both attractive to them and very helpful. Keep the water shallow, or use just a small container so the robin doesn't bathe. If temps are cold enough for water to freeze on the feathers, the bird can have trouble flying, and it may not be able to fly at all.

Feeders for Robins
Some people have figured out ways to entice robins to feeders! Robins virtually never eat bird seed--their stomach and intestines are not designed to digest them. But they have come to feeders for:
  • Report Robin feeders as Robin (OTHER observations)

    fruits: cut up apples, pears, oranges; blueberries, cranberries, and other berries; raisins and currants
  • softened dog food kibble
  • meal worms, earthworms, and red worms

The first problem with robin feeders is that most robins have never heard of such a thing! It never occurs to them to explore their winter areas for human handouts. One of the easiest ways to help robins discover a winter feeder is to put it near a bird bath.

Mike Houle's heated robin feeder

The second problem with robin feeders is that the food can freeze. Mike Houle of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, figured out a good way to solve this problem. He filled a heated dog dish with peat moss, sawdust, and other soft matter. Then he put the worms in that. The heat from the dish keeps the bottom of the sawdust and peat moss unfrozen so the worms stay alive until a robin digs in!

If you have found a way to feed robins this winter, send us a field report! (Click the owl button on any page.)

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