Winter Robins: Why They Stay & How to Help Them

Wednesday, November 6, 2019
Ah, winter. I can hear it already.. many of you yelling at me through your computer screens, "Winter isn't here YET!". And you're right, it's not. But those sub-zero temperatures are creeping in, and the white stuff will be flying any day now. Most of our avian summer residents have long since departed, and our lovely winter migrants are returning to our feeders. But sometimes it seems there are a few birds who didn't get the memo that it was time to go. American Robins are one migratory species who are often found in flocks throughout Ontario in the middle of winter. For a bird who is often thought of as a first sign of spring, it's hard to imagine them surviving our harsh Canadian winters - let's find out how they do it.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius) perched in light snowfall. Notice the ruffled feathers to help keep warm.
Why do some stay?
The wintering range of the American Robin is largely affected by weather and food supply. Most birds can survive frigid temperatures as long as they have a reliable source of food, and in this area our native fruit-bearing plants typically have a bounty available for robins to eat throughout the winter. Robins maintain a body temperature of about 104℉ no matter the temperature outside. In the winter they generate body heat by shivering, and maintain their warm temperature by fluffing their feathers which acts as a shield from blowing wind and snow. All of this temperature regulation takes a lot of energy, which they get from their food. Studies suggest that more robins over-winter here than we may realize, and rather than migrating, they simply change their behaviour. In the winter months robins are non-territorial and will gather in nomadic flocks to feast on berries, while in the spring the flocks will disband to seek out and claim suitable nesting territory. Once nesting territories are established, American Robins will aggressively defend their areas until the last chicks of the season have flown the coop, flocking together once again when fall blows in. So while many do migrate south, because of their nomadic tendencies through the winter & solitary nature in the spring and summer, there may be more robins who over-winter here than we see.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius) eyeing up crab apples to feast on in late winter. A favourite among many fruit-eating species.

All the insects are gone, so what do they eat?

Like many bird species, American Robins rely heavily on insects to make up the bulk of their diet through the spring and summer months. From late fall to early spring, their diet switches from insects to berries & other fruits. Here in Ontario we have many native fruiting species which produce substantial volumes of fruit each year. Some natural foods robins can be found gorging on are chokecherries, dogwood, staghorn sumac, and juniper. There are also several foods you can offer over-wintering robins in your own backyard, read more about those options below.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius) feeding on BirdBerry Jelly
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) taking a drink from a WBU Heated Bird Bath.
How can I help them?
Though robins aren't seed-eaters, there are many food options that you can offer to help ease the stress of winter foraging.
  • Live Mealworms: Live mealworms are one of the most natural food items that you can offer to robins hanging out in your yard through the winter. They're high in calories and packed full of protein, making them the perfect meal. You can offer mealworms in a low dish where you've seen robins feeding, in a feeder like our Spiral Treat Tray, or right on top of the snow (click here to watch a video of a robin feeding on mealworms in the snow). To learn more about offering mealworms to your backyard birds, click here
  • Bark Butter: There aren't many birds who can resist Bark Butter, and robins are no exception. Spread some low on tree trunks or on fallen branches and watch them enjoy! Robins will also readily accept Bark Butter Bits, or Bugs & Bits which include dried mealworms.
  • Suet: High-quality suets such as our protein-packed SuperSuet are a great option that robins will dine on in the winter if given the opportunity. Be sure to hang the feeder near where you have seen robins feeding to entice them to it. 
  • BirdBerry Jelly: This all-natural jelly is specially formulated to attract fruit-eating species with a blend of grapes and blackberries. Robins can be found feasting on this tasty treat year-round. BirdBerry Jelly can be offered in a low dish, or in a cup feeder like our Spiral Treat Tray or APS Fruit Feeder Branch Perch (pictured above).
  • Fruit-bearing Native Plants: We cannot stress enough how important it is to plant native! Planting fruit-bearing native plants such as chokecherries, mountain ash, or staghorn sumac will help provide natural food and shelter to a plethora of wildlife from insects to birds to mammals (including yourself - check out this video on how to brew your own staghorn sumac tea!).
Quite possibly the most valuable asset in any backyard birding haven is a heated bird bath. In the winter, birds will eat snow in order to stay hydrated, but it takes a lot of energy to warm that snow up to body temperature. By providing a heated bird bath, you are helping birds reserve that energy for flying, maintaining body heat, and foraging. Robins are a common bird bath visitor in the winter months when drinking water is harder to come by, and it is guaranteed to attract many other species to your yard as well.


So if you happen to find a flock of American Robins perched in the snow, remember that they are built to survive (and thrive) in our chilly winter weather. As the old saying goes: "The early bird gets the worm, but the bird who never leaves gets the best nesting territory." Or something like that.

Happy Trails!
- Shayna

2 comments:

  1. Question - won't the live meal worms and jelly freeze? When/how should you best feed those items then to prevent this? Same time every day so the Robin gets on a schedule? Thanks!

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    1. Hi there, Live mealworms may freeze in the winter but the birds will still eat them if they are frozen. Jelly would be more challenging. I would feed them dehydrated fruit like raisins instead or small berries such as blueberries. Same time every day can help birds get on a schedule. Also whistling or ringing a bell prior to each feeding can help get them accustom to your habits as well. It's helpful to plant native shrubs that have berries such as high shrub cranberry, crab apple and mountain ash. I hope this helps! Kristen

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