Outdoors

Robins are a welcome sight, but not a sign of spring

Wildside: Many don't migrate at all

Robins forage in a lawn in Quasqueton in his file photo. Although many see robins as a sign of spring, the birds actually stick around all winter. (The Gazette)
Robins forage in a lawn in Quasqueton in his file photo. Although many see robins as a sign of spring, the birds actually stick around all winter. (The Gazette)

As much as Iowans welcome the arrival of spring, the feeling this year was more akin to relief at the end of a miserable winter.

In my neighborhood, the long-awaited transition came suddenly.

On March 13, winter still reigned, with snow covering most of the landscape and a thick layer of ice shrouding the surface of the Wapsipinicon River.

On the 14th, following a warm night, the snow, with the exception of shaded spots and snowplow mounds, was largely gone, and by nightfall the rising Wapsipinicon had lifted, broken and carried away its mantel of ice.

Also by nightfall, the newly bare winter-yellowed lawns swarmed with stiff-legged hopping robins, flipping leaves in pursuit of morsels of food.

While robins have long been associated with spring, many of those so-called new arrivals had been here all along.

Because many robins don’t migrate at all, “they have lost status as harbingers of spring,” said Jim Durbin of Marion, a longtime leader of the Cedar Rapids Audubon Society.

Robins can survive blizzards and ice storms if they have adequate food (typically berries and fruit) and shelter (typically in trees and shrubs), Durbin said.

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Though they may not be far away, people seldom see winter robins because they have no reason to frequent snow-covered lawns and gardens, he said.

The Cedar Rapids Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird counts, conducted over a 24-hour period between Dec. 14 and Jan. 4, document the winter presence of robins.

In a recent 20-year period, participants in Cedar Rapids counted a total of 541 robins — an average of 27 per year.

In a recent 10-year period, participants in northern Linn County counted 384 robins — an average of 38 per year.

Durbin said bird enthusiasts tend to regard early arriving true migrants, such as red-winged blackbirds and killdeers, as the best signs of spring’s arrival.

This year, as in most years, however, the migrating redwings were colonizing rural fence posts shortly after the robins moved to town.

As promptly as they arrived, both species must have been waiting for winter’s end as fervently as the rest of us.

Though neither species is blessed with brilliant plumage or song, each is welcome the year-round and especially now when one can symbolize the end of winter and the other the advent of spring.

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