The last snow of winter was rapidly melting, but our holly tree was still draped in a peaceful white coating. Kelly green leaves and brilliant red berries poked through the pure snow, much like a Currier and Ives print. What caught my eye, though, were the more than 50 robins plucking those succulent red berries as fast as they were able.
I was as hungry for warmer weather as these birds were for holly berries. The recent snowstorm capped a long string of gray days. Late sunrises and depressingly early sunsets had already put me in a mood that was as dreary as the weather. The flock of robins, mindlessly feeding, forced me out of the doldrums, and I smiled.
The American robin (Turdus migratorius)—the proverbial harbinger of spring—is really a year-round resident in much of the United States. And, they can be found everywhere: They are as equally at home in the full range of woodlands as they are in parks and other open spaces.
Virtually everyone conjures up the same image when they hear the word “robin”: an erect, relatively large songbird (about 10 inches) with a puffed out orange-red breast hopping around on the lawn, cocking its black head from side to side as it feeds on worms.
Earthworms are a staple in the robin’s diet for much of the year. With their sharp eyesight, the birds are remarkably adept at spotting their prey in the grass. Robins use their slender bills to pull the worms out of the tangle of vegetation. Other members of the thrush family exhibit similar ground-feeding behavior, often using their bills to thrash through leaf litter in search of insects and other food.
With the arrival of cold weather, though, earthworms go deeper underground to escape snow, ice and frost, not to mention the reach of the robin’s beak.
The change in seasons and diminished availability of a preferred food are typical reasons for birds to migrate south in the winter. The remarkably adaptive robin, though, simply changes its diet and behavior and gets along just fine. Robins migrate, but their movements are more like a long commute than the prodigious travels of neotropical songbirds. Robins will drop down out of Canada during the winter, but most go no farther than the southern United States.
As the view out the window made clear, robins switch to fruits and berries in winter. Instead of foraging for food singly on the ground, they form relatively large flocks and feed in trees.
They also waste no time in building up energy reserves for the coming breeding season. As the days begin to lengthen, robins abandon the flocks to stake out mating territory. Listening to the beautiful, rich, clear song of males looking for mates, it is no wonder that robins are so strongly associated with spring. The fact that they have been here all along, hiding in plain view, doesn’t seem to hurt their association with spring in the least.
I love spring. The world seems more fully alive, and the promise of new beginnings is everywhere, from early daffodils and the pregnant buds of flowering trees to the expanding reach of sunlight and warmth. But all of this vitality doesn’t just magically appear. Nature has simply been taking a moment to quietly gather its strength for the annual rites of spring.
Occasionally, I think I’d like my life to be a perpetual spring, always bursting with new ideas and breathtaking displays of beauty. But that’s not the natural order of things. Changing circumstances demand adaptation.
Like robins in the winter, I must find new sources of sustenance to carry me through darker days. In the meantime, life in plain view continues, and with it the need to build new energy reserves for the more propitious times of light and warmth that will surely come.