Birds & Birding

Why Are You Seeing Robins in Winter?

February 7, 2018

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American Robin (Turdus migratorius). Photo Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren / Flickr through a CC BY 2.0 license

As winter wears on, the passing of Groundhog Day has many people thinking about the arrival of spring. Even skeptics can’t be faulted for dreading Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow, but I’ve been watching for a different omen. I’ve been awaiting the arrival of the American robin, a traditional harbinger of spring in the United States.

But there’s a hitch. Recently, while gazing out my apartment window, I saw not just one robin but a flock of thirty or more visiting my neighborhood trees. Weirder still, these robins weren’t eating their standard springtime worms, they were noshing on late fruiting berries. Spring has certainly not arrived, so why have the robins?

To learn more about this behavior, I spoke to Elizabeth Howard, Founder and Director of Journey North. Journey North’s American Robin project is tracking robin movements across North America. She pointed out that robins, though they are considered migratory, don’t follow the typical north to south and back migration pattern we tend to associate with other migratory birds.

Robins in Winter

“Robins can withstand very cold temperatures,” Howard explains. “In most places you can see robins in the wintertime. You’ll see them wandering around and yet it’s not considered migration because basically they’re moving in a nomadic way, following the food.”

Many robins, especially those that remain in the northern states and southern Canada, change their diets in winter. Since worms and insects aren’t available, they search out trees that still have fruit.

Flock of robins. Photo © Seabamirum / Flickr through a CC BY 2.0 license

“In the wintertime robins are actually social,” Howard says. “They form flocks — all those eyes and ears are good for watching out for predators. And one of the beauties of flocking is that if one of them finds some food, it can call the rest.”

Even in freezing temperatures, robins can stay warm enough to make staying through the winter worthwhile. Those who remain near their mating grounds will get first dibs on the best nesting territories when spring arrives.

“Sometimes you see them and it’s so cold you think, ‘My goodness they’ll all die.’” Howard says. “It’s amazing, the way they survive winter is they fluff their feathers and get really big. Their internal temperature is 104° F and yet they can be in areas below freezing. That’s how well their feathers insulate them; there can even be a 100-degree difference just through those layers of feathers.”

If you want to observe robins in winter, try putting out water for them. They can survive on their own by eating snow, but birds always welcome a source of unfrozen water for drinking and bathing.

Male robin. Photo © Lisa Feldkamp / The Nature Conservancy

The First Robin of Spring

Robins haven’t been entirely dethroned from their poetic status as spring symbol. Though notions of spring vary by region and temperature. Some robin behaviors take place in step with the warming temperatures that people associate with the arrival of spring.

For instance, as temperatures warm in springtime, the bulk of the robin population follows a more reliable northward spring migration pattern.

“In the spring they migrate with a 36-degree isotherm,” Howard explains. “The ground thaws and that’s when traditional earthworms and some other insect larvae are available. That’s when you see big movements.”

More than anything, the robin’s song remains a reliable indicator that the first wave of spring migration has reached you. This song is one of the first signs that robins are switching from winter behavior to courtship and nesting behavior associated with spring.

Robin with a worm. Photo © John Benson / Flickr through a CC BY 2.0 license

“We see a clear south to north progression in reports of territorial song,” Howard notes. “Across the continent, as males arrive on territory they begin to sing. That true robin song that you hear nonstop all day or certainly through the morning means your local male has arrived.”

Males arrive first to establish their territories – they will fight with their feet to defend them. In spring the males become so territorial that they’ve been known to beat themselves up while trying to fight their own reflection.

“Females arrive a couple of weeks later,” Howard says. “They’re not in a rush. Their job is to have fat stores as plentiful as possible. They don’t want to burn through calories by migrating too early. They need to be in good condition.”

Arriving too early can be bad for reproduction too. A spring freeze can damage the integrity of the nest.

Robin nest. Photo © Plant Image Library / Flickr through a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Only the females have a brood patch, an area of warm featherless skin that’s used to transfer body heat to the eggs. Females spend about 50 minutes of every hour on the nest during incubation. It’s two weeks from egg laying to hatching and robins will start a new nest within the month. Robins nest as many as four times each summer, depending on how far north they are.

As in winter, water is one of the best ways to attract robins to your yard in spring.

“If you turn on a sprinkler you’lll have robins within minutes,” Howard says. “It makes the soil soft and earthworms and other food easy to collect.”

Juvenile robin. Photo © Ken_from_MD / Flickr through a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Report Your Robin Observations

You can report robin observations to Journey North all year round. As spring approaches, Journey North has a checklist of robin life cycle events to track and report:

  • Over-wintering robins – watch for flocks.
  • First male robin – you will know it is a male by his bold red breast and his dark head and back.
  • First wave of robins – three or more robins together (but not in the winter) is a sign that migration is peaking.
  • Average temperature reaches 36° F – help Journey North find out whether or not this is truly when robins sing.
  • First earthworm – help Journey North find out if robin arrival is tied to earthworm availability.
  • First robin song – listen for the robin’s true song.
  • First female robin – she will look washed out compared to the male.
  • First males in battle – they will be fighting over territories.
  • Nest building begins – watch for males with a mouthful of nest materials or females with muddy breasts.
  • Incubation underway – if you’re not seeing the female around anymore, she’s probably busy incubating.
  • Young hatch – watch for adults flying with worms.
  • First young fledge – fledglings don’t fly and have a spotted breast. You might see them on the ground or in low branches.
  • First young take wing – within a few days of fledging watch for the juveniles to start their practice flights.
  • Parents start another nest – when you see the male feeding the fledglings, but the female is absent, she has likely disappeared to incubate a new set of eggs.

“One of the great things about robins is they’re so accessible,” Howard says. “You can look out your window and see them. There’s so much to learn about such an unsung hero.”

Have you noticed unusual robin behavior in your neighborhood or, for kids and teachers, at your school? Share it in the comments and report your sightings to Journey North.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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53 comments

  1. I quit counting robins as a sign of spring I see them all year round just like great blue herons , I count turkey vulture are ground hogs.

    1. I love the idea of watching for turkey vultures as the new sign of spring 🙂 Thank you Julian!

  2. We live in central Indiana, surprised a couple days ago (Feb 7) to see as many as fifty Robins out back in a couple different trees, flying around the back yard from tree to tree. Have not seen one since that day.

    1. Hi Pat, The flocks in winter are nomadic and follow the food, so it’s common to only see them briefly. Thank you for sharing your observation!

  3. We live in Lubbock,TX. there are trees all around in spite of Lubbock being a semi arid place. Since a few days I have been seeing a whole lot of Robins in our back yard. They do not eat the bird seed I put but by golly they drink water like anything. Almost non stop. This happens a few times a year I have noticed. They poop all seeds and berries of different colors at different seasons. As though they have eaten fermented berries and are dizzy like they make a bee line to the water pan which is a big size one ( I use the drip pan from the oven that I don’t use for baking) Today I watched them fro two hours in spite of having lot of household chores to take care of. I just couldn’t resist. Why do they drink so much water can some one explain please? They are so disciplined. They do not fight but wait for their turn to drink water. Twenty robins or so will be drinking and another twenty birds will be waiting to take their turns. Amazing!! Thank you and have a good week you all.

    1. Hi Ambika, I have heard that robins (and other birds) sometimes do get drunk from eating berries, but I had not heard about this particular drinking behavior – though I’ve seen video of similar behavior with budgies in Australia. I would assume that they don’t get a chance to drink often in the arid environment and so when they do get a chance, they really fill up. I will check with Elizabeth and see if I can find out more. Thank you for sharing a cool observation!

      1. Lisa,
        I sure do appreciate your taking time to reply. Am happy to learn a little bit more about robins. Take care. Stay healthy and warm. Have a good weeknd.

        1. Hi ambika, I shared your question with Elizabeth Howard and she says they have heard of them eating fermented fruit and becoming drunk. She doesn’t know why they are drinking so much water, but it could be because Texas is dry or it could seem like a lot because of a difference in expectations of how much water robins would drink as compared to how much they actually drink. Thank you again for the question and have a great week!

  4. Reading this in Toronto L 43.65. Where do you observe the events in this column from?

    1. I was writing from Corvallis, Oregon. Journey North data suggests the phenomenon is widespread across much of North America – though there are still areas where people usually don’t report robins until the weather warms. Thank you for the question!

  5. We’ve seen them in large flocks twice in the past few weeks here in Charleston, SC! They’re pecking on the ground AND eating Holly berries. Beautiful! I think they were all males.

  6. I love Robins, always have and they were always my harbingers of spring. In the last five years or so, here in Jamaica Estates, Queens, New York, the Robins have not left they are here year round and I love watching them nest.

    Thank you for this great information. I will continue my watch.

    Sincerely,
    Saula J. Siegel

  7. If you check the Christmas Bird Count for Minneapolis MN, you’ll find robins listed all the way back.

  8. I love the Robin’s song. We had a bad winter in Iowa this year and I never seen any around. It’s Feb.28th and I still haven’t seen any in Council Bluffs yet.

  9. In winter we usually have flocks of robins in our neighborhood in Palo Alto, California, gorging themselves on our toyon berries. The last couple of winters I have seen only on or two. The berries remain on the bushes, uneaten. Is this part of biological change as a result of climate change?

    1. Hi Carol, Thank you for the question! There are so many variables that it’s difficult to attribute a specific event like this to climate change. For instance, it could be that the robins found a more bountiful source of food elsewhere. That is why it’s so important to have many observations over a large area over time – that kind of data reveals long term trends that could be connected to climate change.

  10. Thank you
    Nice review
    But I believe one has to recall the North American robin has the same physical size and feeding habits as The European thrush
    And is quite different from the delicate redbreasted bird that the English call a robin
    Brian T

    1. Hi Brian, Thank you! Yes, this post is about American robins. I don’t know if British robins are considered a harbinger of spring or not, but they are a very different bird.

  11. Thank you for that article, Lisa!
    We had been wondering the same things for some years, here in Central Missouri. I’m glad to hear that robins are hardier than we thought, because we don’t see them at the feeders. If they eat Japanese Honeysuckle berries, they are well provided for, because it has definitely taken over our woodlands and yard boundaries.

  12. I saw a Robin yesterday fly away, from a tree, here in Woodstock, IL. I have never seen one this early in the year before! I was so excited, as usual, when I see any wildlife. I would like to mention that last Summer, Robins were very scarce at my parent’s house near McHenry, IL. It was almost creepy without them.

  13. I have a question about robins. I live in New York City but across the street from a park and trees.
    In the spring and summer, and part of the fall, there is beautiful bird song almost all night–it seems
    to come from a single bird, but the song varies a little from year to year. It is a very sweet and somewhat
    elaborate trill. It’s so lovely that we often waken at night just to list to it, such a rare beautiful moment
    in a noisy city. Sometimes we can hear another similar bird song from further away.

    I listened to the Audubon Society bird songs several years ago and thought it was a robin. I also read
    that robins [and other city birds] often sing at night because it is so noisy during the day.
    It’s too early for me to record and send it to you.

    Could it be a robin [or a series of robins, given that the song varies somewhat from year to year]
    even though it doesn’t sound quite like your “real robin” song?

    If not, what else could it be? We did have a pair of robins nesting in a tree around the corner–in the
    other direction from our virtuoso. I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this.

  14. After reading this interesting article I now understand why I spotted a Robin in my yard in NJ in early February! I haven’t seen any since but likely will soon. For the past 3 years we’ve had a Robin make its nest on top of our pergola on our deck. We see the adults constantly flying back and forth feeding the babies. Hopefully they’ll come back to their nesting spot this spring!

  15. Thank you Lisa. That was so informative and fun. In Seattle here in the last two months I have seen several flocks of 20-25 robins invading the berry trees big time. I wondered each time what was
    going on with so many of them being here in January.

  16. I have seen large flocks of robins in the winter before. I live in York, ME and have wetlands behind my house, and am fortunate enough to be able to observe all kinds of birds. I remember one time in February 2015 I was out in the woods and saw a flock of at least 50 robins eating berries. That’s when I figured out robins aren’t necessarily a sign of spring. I have found that the Red-Shouldered Blackbirds (who seem to be quite territorial and aggressive; they really like the cat tails out in the swamp) are a far more reliable sign, along with the Goldfinches. I often see robins year round. On a somewhat related note, while I can identify most of the birds I see, I once saw a bird that I have not been able to figure out for quite some time. It was a large bird, about the size of a chicken at least, and it was clinging to the side of a maple tree, kind of like how a woodpecker or Chickadee grips the side of a tree. It had a red “V” on its back. The closest I’ve found in my bird book is Harris’s Hawk, but that doesn’t make sense given my environment. I only saw it that one time and from behind the bird. I went to grab my camera but it was gone when I got back. Any idea what it could have been? Some sort of owl perhaps? Or perhaps a falconer lost track of their bird…?

  17. I live in Sequim, WA and we have robins all year. Robins were the second highest bird reported on our Christmas Bird Count which is in early December….

    Sequim is located about 70 miles west of Seattle on the Olympic Peninsula…

  18. we live n southern new jersey just outside Philadelphia and I observed a flock of at least 100 robins in our yard and in my neighbor’s yard during a snow on January 4, 2018. She has a 30 ft holly tree that was covered in red hollyberries and the robins were feeding in the tree and on the frozen, snow-covered ground. We see them occasionally now but not in those numbers.

  19. I’ve had robins winter in my yard in northern Utah for years, starting with a male whose feathers had somehow had got oil of some kind on them. The parents often drop the babies off in my yard and keep an eye on them for a few days. I’ve had a few male babies who act ‘tame’ and seem to lack fear of humans, animals, or inclement weather. They also stayed fluffed up all the time. I know that at least some of these don’t survive.

  20. Hi, I was wondering why I sometimes hear a Robin in the wintertime singing in a tree very very softly – almost like he’s whispering. I’ve heard this several times.
    Thank you for any insight you can offer.
    Sincerely,
    Jennifer

    1. Hi Jennifer, That is a good question – I haven’t heard of this behavior. I think it would be interesting to report to the Journey North Robin project if you remember the date of the observation. Thank you!

  21. I lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota for many years and found what feeds the robins through the winter are the noxious common buckthorns, (rhamnus cathartica) an exotic (non-native) very invasive small tree from Europe. They were introduced way back in the mid1800’s as hedge plants. They have a survival plan- they leaf out early and lose leaves late so have a competitive edge over any poor native oak trying to germinate. They have those berries that have a purple -blue flesh over a round seed. The birds thrive on them, give the seeds an acid bath and seeds go everywhere and also drop right under the tree, making for a very dense stand of shade. Maples can grow in the shade, not oaks. This is changing the make up of the woods.
    It is hard to control all the buckthorn around but it can be done area by area with cutting and herbiciding large trees and pulling out young ones. Keep after it. They will always be around.

  22. I love robins. About 35 years ago I raised one successfully by feeding him moistened dog kibble. I became his “mom”. If he heard my voice he would starting “cheeping” for food. We were able to let him go but he hung around for a while. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, one of my sons also raised one successfully by feeding him dog kibble.

  23. We have a Robin that flies & splats into our window. When it hits the window, it then drops to the ground and then jumps up about 8 ” to the window sill. He does this over and over. When he hits the window it seams as though he could not survive the hit, but he does. This goes on for a very long time.

  24. I saw robins today, recent arrivals I’m guessing. Because you can see robins in winter nowdays, I look to red wing blackbirds now as my goto for a sign of spring.

  25. Robins here in the Pacific Northwest seem to nest on the ground (?? under ferns and other bushes) instead of in trees…..is this possible. When driving by an area when they are, the adults seem to fly briefly in front of car and then off into the distance, but low to the ground. Are they trying to lead a perceived predator away from their nest site? We have several robins in our yard now – in Puget Sound area— digging for worms …. they look like males. We use our ~3/4 acre to consistently provide water, food and habitat for birds of all kinds, as well as other wildlife, and have as many trees growing on our property as possible.)

  26. Hello! I am from England originally and the English Robin is quite different, smaller with a true red breast, therefore called Robin Red Breast. I grew up learning this rhyme and thought you might enjoy it too. “The North wind doth blow, and we shall have snow, and what will the Robin do then? poor thing.
    He’ll sit in the barn, to keep himself warm, and tuck his head under his wing, poor thing.” I love all the British nursery rhymes and neat things like this. I certainly enjoyed reading all about the Robins in these articles and yes, love watching them in my bird baths and the sprinkler when ready. Right now, it is very cold and snowing off and on and no Robins yet. hugs to keep us warm and love for all our animals and feathered friends.

  27. I saw my first two robins today . I live in Manalapan N.J. and we are in the middle of a snowstorm . My robins always return about mid-March and somehow arrive in or around a snowstorm . This is a little early for them. I thought perhaps in another week but they are back. I’m happy!!

  28. Several weeks ago, probably in January, we had Robins in our Robinson crab apple tree here in South Tamworth, NH between the Winnipesaukee Lakes Region and the Mount Washington Valley. I was quite surprised to see them, but they were eagerly eating the little apples during a heavy snow storm. It was a lovely surprise. Plenty of apples remain, but the Robins quickly moved on.

  29. So happy to learn that Journey North is still around. I started using Journey North in my computer classes lab as soon as we had Internet connection in the 90s. We did many different projects for signs of spring. We did tulips, robins, and more. I retired in 1999. I hope many teachers are now involved because it is such a worthwhile opportunity for interaction with classes throughout the country and even the world, integrating many curriculum areas.

  30. Wow this is a great article! We have always called the big fat cardinals we see in the winter CHARLES COUNTY MARYLAND cardinals and the smaller ones that arrive in spring migrating ones. Now I know they are just the same birds just not needing to keep warm so they “deflate” hahah. I live in a densely wooded area with loads of holly trees. Some taller than the house. The robins fill the trees in the early winter feasting on the berries. And then we don’t usually see large groups of them until we get a good snow, which isn’t every year.
    Thank you for the lesson!

  31. Robins have arrived at my house,Wichita,Ks and it’s only March.They sure have been enjoying my bird bath! Was wondering if you knew how to keep Crackels out of the suet I hang out? Got at least five that attack the cage! Now my woodpecker’s won’t come around.Thank you!

  32. Just observed about 15-20 Robins in my Daughter-in-Laws yard. We live in St. Catharines, Ontario Canada just a few miles west of Niagara falls. This is the first time I have seen that many robins together this early in the year.

  33. I’m in SE Michigan and we have one apple tree in our small condo subdivision that I pass every day. I’ve been waiting all winter to see robins in it and a few days ago I finally did! It was a small flock of about 8-10 and they were sharing the apples with a flock of cedar waxwings. I’ve seen flocks of these two species hang out in the winter before. They are fun to watch!

  34. I’ve moved to a town that’s swamped in robins in the spring and started to notice their behaviours all the time due to the sheer numbers of them to watch. The behaviour that I’d like to understand is the “sit by oneself as fatly and grumpily-looking as possible on someone’s lawn, generally close to the road or sidewalk” behaviour. It looks territorial and possibly also the ground is warmer near the pavement, so potentially more food is available. But when I approach robins who are doing this in the park (rather than on lawns where they generally fly off), they tend to bob along just beside/ahead of me, dragging their wingtips but rarely flying off — yesterday, one robin possibly female was making a fuss on the top of a baseball diamond as the other bobbed along and when it eventually took off flew clumsily and not very effectively onto a shrub branch about a 2 feet off the ground. It’s too early for fledglings and these robins aren’t speckly and have very full red breasts anyhow. I just find it odd. Also, their grumpy faces are hilarious.

  35. For two years in a row now, at this same time of year, I’ve driven past a local farm field (outside Montpelier, VT) while on my way home from work (around 6:15PM) and noticed that it was covered with robins, each about 10-15 feet away from any other robin. There were hundreds of robins in this network formation. Another field further down (separated from this one by woods and a few houses) was the same way. This spread along the road for about two miles. I have not read anything that approaches this. I believe the same field was slightly flooded last year. This year it is covered with about 3″ of slush and new snow/sleet accumulation, so it was not bare ground this year.

  36. I have a robin’s nest near my front door so I’m getting a lot of great information about these guys! I have binacular’s too so I can get even closer.
    It has been so neat watching them. I will try to be as brief as possible but there is SO much! From the beginning with the female building the nest so quickly. After a rainstorm she would bring mouthfuls of mud, grasses, twigs…she was WEAVING the twigs! every so often she would get inside and rock her body back and forth to mold the most perfect home.
    After about 2 weeks the babies hatched on Mother’s Day! I saw what appeared to be the female “jack hammering” inside the nest. 3 days later I saw the tips of little beaks reaching up and both mother and father are continuously feeding them. (I don’t know how many, was afraid to peek in the nest and attract predators….believe it or not, crows watch and know somethings up)
    So cute! The father is VERY gentle taking his time to feed, look, feed look….and the mother is quick and gets it done fast.
    The father has made enough noise at times I run outside to find either a group of grackles or a crow too close to the nest. I scare them away. The male’s warning calls are about 30-40 ft away from the nest which is smart to not bring attention to where the nest is. The male doesn’t fly away. I’ve done this so much I believe they know that I’m helping them. I talk to her softly as I walk to my car (not looking or stopping) or bringing out the trash (about a foot from the nest) and neither fly away or make any sound.
    Today has to be the coolest! We had torrential rains. I was so worried. Well, the mother stayed on the nest with her wing spread outside the nest! The rain ran off her to the ground instead of going into the nest. How smart! The male would fly in and appear to kiss the female. Out came the binacular’s. As the mom protected the babies, the father was bringing in food, transferring the food to the mother’s mouth! This went on the entire storm. Rain has subsided and both of them are muddy and drenched. Mom did all the actual feeding during this time that the father provided. I am in awe! I am keeping a close eye on them and hope the babies can survive the odds. Will keep you posted.
    LOVE my Robin family!

    1. Hi Kathy, That is so cool! I hope that you are sharing these observations on Journey North as well – observations like this are so valuable to improving our knowledge of robin behavior. Thank you for watching out for this robin family!