Winter came late to New York’s Finger Lakes in 2009; it was mild into November and we didn’t get our first serious snow until halfway through December. As usual, by then most of the songbirds of summer were just a memory, but certain species always linger those that birders refer to fondly as “half-hardy”. Birds such as the Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Wren, Hermit Thrush, Northern Flicker, Cedar Waxwing—and of course American Robin—take their sweet time heading south, staying well into the cold weather season, sometimes all winter long if they can find food.
Winter Solstice was just days away when I heard the robin. I’d watched the usual big push of migrant robins fleeing ahead of the north wind weeks before, and so I was surprised to find one remaining individual in my backyard. Its sharp calls gave it away—PEEK!…PEEK!…PEEK!-tut-tut—coming from the edge of the woods (see below for a recording). And there it sat, looking chilly with its feathers fluffed up against the wind while the snowflakes tumbled down, surely berating itself for lingering too long up north!
It seemed like a photo-op in the making, something in fact that I’d been anticipating. Several years ago I began making my yard more bird-friendly by planting native food plants such as winterberry, a type of holly that produces masses of bright red berries that are an important winter food for wildlife around here. The reason half-hardy birds can stick around so long is that they adapt their diet to the season. Robins, bluebirds and other thrush relatives switch from a summer meal plan of insects, earthworms and other small creatures to a fall and winter diet of fruit. And I’d made sure there was fruit in abundance on my property.
Sure enough, those berries proved irresistible and the hungry robin was soon filling up, arriving for a snack several times an hour throughout the day. So I set up my photo blind and camera gear and got to work. Three days, and many images both video and stills—later, the robin had departed, presumably to somewhere with better weather!
Fruit-eating birds are essential dispersal agents for many plants. Notice how the robin swallows the berries whole; it will eliminate the seeds later at some other location in its droppings, spreading winterberry to other areas so more hungry birds can enjoy a winter feast.
Here is an example of the PEEK! and PEEK!-tut-tut calls of a robin, recorded in late winter not far from my home near Ithaca, New York:
Alarm calls of an American Robin. 7:30pm. 15 February 1990. Shindagin Hollow near Ithaca New York. Recorded by Lang Elliott.