By Jim Poling Sr.
From Shaman’s Rock
Robins are harbingers of spring, which officially arrived almost three weeks ago. So where is the spring weather, and where are the robins?
It’s April, the daffodil month, and winter still refuses to loosen its headlock on much of the country.
Out my front window I see a lake with an ice cover seemingly determined to become permanent. A winter breeze scours it before climbing the shoreline embankment to fondle my house. Its icy fingers probe the smallest cracks and crannies and I feed the woodstove another log from the seriously diminished woodpile.
The weather forecasters offer little relief. They predict small shots of sun and warmth interspersed with bursts of abnormal cold and wet throughout April. We are getting one of those small warmer shots this week, but no real, sustained spring warmth is expected until May.
The winter-like conditions don’t mean we won’t be seeing robins for a while. There is growing evidence that more robins are staying in northern regions during winter.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says robins now are wintering in every U.S. state except Hawaii and every Canadian southern provincial area.
Also, data from feeder watch programs show robin visitation rates in northern Canada rising steadily. Average winter flock sizes have been increasing as well.
Program FeederWatch, where people count birds in their yards and post results online, reported robins at 59 per cent of Ontario sites during the 2020-21 winter. That compares with 27 per cent 1989, the project’s first year.
There is no solid evidence of why more robins are wintering in the north. One theory is simply that winters are becoming milder.
What we do know is robins are not afraid of winter weather. They maintain a body temperature of 40 Celsius no matter how cold it is. They shiver to generate body heat and fluff their feathers as a shield against cold and snow.
They can handle winter, but what they can’t handle is lack of staple foods that become unavailable in winter. Worms, bugs and other little invertebrates favoured by robins disappear when the cold arrives and snow covers the ground.
Many thousands of robins continue to migrate south in winter, but researchers are discovering that some are staying behind and surviving by changing their diet. They turn to summer leftovers – berries, currents and other small fruits left on vines, shrubs and trees long after summer showers have become snow storms.
Berries and other small fruits are not something we think about during winter. But if you go looking, you’ll find berries on trees and shrubs such as crab apple, juniper, hawthorn, yew, mountain ash, chokecherry and bearberry.
Seeds also are plentiful in winter but robins don’t digest seeds well and don’t have bills designed for cracking. That’s why they don’t often visit bird feeders.
Robins that stay north in winter are not seen as frequently as they are in summer. That’s because berries and other winter fruits are not abundant and the birds have to move about to find them.
Robins are not just symbols of spring, they represent different signs in different cultures – everything from the promise of spring, to the threat of storms and even death.
Many Indigenous people have viewed the robin as a spiritual bird, a symbol of hope and rebirth and a sign of love and good family life. Some have seen robins as spirit guides helping them to understand visions.
Robin symbolism is found throughout Christianity. There is one story, wrongly attributed to the Bible, which tells of a little bird plucking a thorn from Christ’s forehead when he was being crucified. A drop of Christ’s blood fell on the bird’s breast, staining it red. That bird became the red-breasted robin.
Mother Teresa, the missionary named Saint Teresa of Calcutta by the Catholic Church, related that legend in her 1977 book No Greater Love.
“Each of us should try and be that bird – the little robin,” she wrote. “When we see someone in pain, we must ask ourselves: What can I do to give them comfort?”
Whatever the symbolization, we’ll soon be seeing robins hunting bugs and worms on grassy patches and we’ll know that a long, tough winter finally has given way to summer sunshine and warmth.