Levin: Winter Robins

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(Host) Naturalist and commentator Ted Levin says that this winter, one
of our most iconic signs of spring has been with us all along.

During the summer of 2002, I planted several winterberry bushes on the
east side of the garden. Winterberry is a shrubby, deciduous holly that
belongs to the same genus – Ilex – as the better-known, thorny-leaved,
evergreen, American holly. As the name suggests, winterberry produces
fruit late in the year. Its bright red berries hug leafless branches
through much of the winter and when seen from a distance, give that part
of our yard a rosy blush. Winterberry look particularly dazzling
against a snowfall.

It’s often found in wetlands, along the edge
of ponds and lakes. The berries are neon bright in the winter gloom,
but winter birds eat them only when richer, fattier, more nutritious
berries have been harvested.

For ten years, my winterberry
bushes held their fruit right through the winter. But this year, they
were gone by mid-January – consumed by a small flock of equally colorful

Generally speaking, robins pass through Vermont in late
October and early November. Occasionally, we’ll see one in early
December, and once, many years ago, a small flock overwintered at a
dairy farm in Plainfield, New Hampshire, surviving on maggots mined from
the mountains of manure behind the barn.

This winter, a flock
of seven robins hung around our yard. During the warm weather of late
fall and early winter the robins ate earthworms in the garden; when the
weather turned cold, they ate the winterberries. And when the very last
berry was gone, the robins vanished.

There aren’t many birds as
utterly familiar as the robin. Their customary arrival in late February
is marked on calendars and broadcast in the media. They run
helter-skelter on lawns and nest on porches and in ornamental trees
around the yard, often at eye-level. At least in North America, robin’s
egg-blue is a universally known color.

Their spring and summer
activities are easy to predict, but where they make their winter home
depends on weather and food, and both are fickle commodities. One bitter
cold winter, more than twenty-five years ago, tens of millions of
robins descended on the Everglades. They were everywhere and hungry,
stripping berries from hammock bushes and chasing down little white
moths. They lined rain puddles like animated bathtub toys, a dozen or
more at puddle after puddle. But the very next winter the very same
region was nearly robinless.

Historically, the robin’s winter
range is in the Southeast, from lower New York to Georgia, though it’s
not uncommon for a few to stay here through the winter – in sheltered
spots where food is plentiful. But this year, flocks of robins have been
reported throughout our region, and that’s probably due to recent
climate patterns that have been anything but predictable.

after the robins departed, a red-bellied woodpecker appeared in the
yard, foraging in the crabapples. A bird that’s only recently extended
its range into Vermont – it’s another indicator of a warming world.

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