More than usual, I’ve been seeing large flocks of robins around the area I live in which is Southern Chisago County near Forest Lake. Of course I assumed they were ganging up and headed to warmer climates for the winter and filling up on whatever they could forage for sustenance. I’m used to seeing these large flocks in early spring as the robins “return” and gorge themselves on the dried and condensed fruits of crabapple and berry plants. In fact the robins can get a bit tipsy from the alcohol content in the fruit.

But are all those robins really headed for warmer climates or does it just appear that way ? According to the American Bird Conservancy website, the robins are not necessarily lured by warmer temperatures. They can withstand extremely cold temperatures, adding warm, downy feathers to their plumage. The real motivation is food, or rather the lack of it. As their warm-weather diet of earthworms and insects wanes, robins begin searching for fresh supplies. In fact, they have been observed in every U.S. state (except Hawai’i) and all southern Canadian provinces in January. They’re able to remain thanks to several important adaptations.

Robins form flocks in the winter.  Flocking offers critical benefits: Larger groups mean more eyes and improved chances to spot — and avoid —predators. They also increase the odds of discovering food.  And generally, they stay true to their range, making very little noise, and generally maintain a subdued presence. However, a heavy snowfall that persists for more than a few days may send them on their way, searching for better conditions.

Taken together, these changes dramatically lower robins’ profile in the northern part of their range, making sightings much less common, and leading some people to assume they are absent. It will be interesting to see how many sick around after this latest early snowfall and our cold autumn temperatures.

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