The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


March 10, 2013

‘How do robins survive winter conditions?’

Darleen Flaherty of Taylor, Michigan writes, “Several Michigan friends and I spotted robins in various locations in the lower half of Michigan’s lower peninsula in February. We saw them when the temperature was in the 40s, but then our weather turned colder and snow returned.

“How do robins survive winter conditions? I’ve never seen a robin at any of my hanging feeders, nor eating snacks off the cement that I offer for other critters.

“Will the robins we saw in February be doomed to die because there are no worms to be had?  We’d love for you to write about robins in your column.”

Winter must be winding down because I’m getting letters and e-mails about winter robins. Are they back early? Did they ever leave? What do they eat? That’s the gist of most of the queries.  Here’s what happening.

Unlike warblers, swallows, and other songbirds that migrate to avoid severe northern winters, robins are hardy and flexible. The extent of their annual migration is influenced by several factors, so seeing robins in winter isn’t unusual. But even in years when robins escape detection, some while away the colder months in the deep woods where few of us venture regularly. Talk to anyone who hikes the winter woods, however, and you’ll hear tales of flocks of robins every year.

Large winter flocks of robins are typical in the southeastern and Gulf coast states, though serious birders can usually come up with a few winter robins just about anywhere. But large flocks of winter robins are always a sight to behold.

Winter robin abundance is most influenced by two factors: snow cover and food availability. In comparing robin abundance to snow cover, the Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology reports that areas with less than five inches of snow cover typically have lots of robins, while areas with more than five inches of snow cover have fewer robins. Heavier snow cover means colder temperatures and food that’s more difficult to find, so robins move south to more favorable conditions.

Furthermore, if food is abundant, robins can thrive in surprisingly cold temperatures if coupled with minimal snowfall. Fruit-bearing trees and shrubs such as cherries and grapes sustain robins during the winter months. Earthworms and other invertebrates are warm weather fare. Being dietary opportunists, robins remain where food is abundant until supplies are exhausted. Then they move on.

One reason robins linger farther north today compared to 50 years ago, especially during mild winters, is the popularity of ornamental fruit trees in urban and suburban areas. We may plant crab apples, hollies, and mountain ashes for their visual appeal, but robins value their fruits. Our horticultural habits have helped create a winter haven for robins.

Another advantage to less frequent and shorter migrations is that robins have that much less distance to travel again in the spring. Thus they can return to their breeding territories earlier and in better condition.

Though people may see flocks of scores or even hundreds of robins during the day while they forage for fruits and berries, the largest and most impressive groups assemble just before dusk. Thousands of robins roost in conifers or other dense cover. And they are sometimes joined by thousands of cowbirds, grackles, and starlings. Such a sight is impressive, unless you happen to park your car under the roost tree.

At dawn, these large roosting flocks break up into many smaller feeding flocks that might travel as far as 20 miles to a food source. At day’s end, they return to the roost for a safe night’s sleep.

Readers also often ask if robins can be attracted to feeders. They can, but not with seeds. Try offering diced raisins, grapes or craisins.  Or, thinking more long term, plant a few fruit-bearing trees and shrubs around the house. Robins also love live food. I’ve watched hungry robins take mouthfuls of mealworms repeatedly, especially when they are feeding nestlings.

Robins are a poor sign of spring. If you choose to measure the arrival or warmer weather by the occurrence of migratory birds, let hummingbirds and wood thrushes be your harbingers of spring.

— Send questions and comments to

Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033, or via e-mail to


Text Only
  • Gettin’ ready for gobbler season: Step 5 — safety

    My brothers in camo, I could not do this series on preparing for gobbler season without talking to you about the aspects of turkey hunting safety. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I have trouble calling myself an expert on anything. Unfortunately, however, I do have a lot of experience in this area.

    April 23, 2014

  • Gettin’ ready for gobbler season: Step 4 — the setup

    This just in — in a recent study on turkey hunting and turkey hunters it was found that 98.7 percent of the time when hunters were unsuccessful when calling in a gobbler, the hunter made some mistake during the last 50 yards of the bird’s approach.

    April 17, 2014

  • 041314 Ellis.jpg Spring break is an attitude

    Finally, warmer weather has arrived to the Mountain State. I’m told, it’s socially acceptable to be late nowadays and there is even a term for it — being fashionably late. Of course, I have also been told that camo is the new black in fashion. I don’t care much for tardiness, or for fashion for that matter, but I am perfectly content with the weather forecaster’s report as of late. And if wearing camouflage is trendy, I will fit in just nicely at any social gathering.

    April 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Coming soon to a garden near you: Hummingbirds!

    One of the things I look forward to each spring is the northbound migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Until 1997, that meant waiting until one showed up at my feeders. But that year a website (, began mapping hummers as they moved north.

    April 13, 2014

  • Morel mushrooms are a W.Va. delicacy, but be careful

    The morel mushroom is one of West Virginia’s best-known delicacies that grows wild in the woods statewide. Mushroom hunting is a wonderful way to get exercise and be in the outdoors at the same time. There is no expense involved, and a bag is all that is needed.

    April 13, 2014

  • 041014 Turkey Call Gettin’ ready for gobbler season: the mystical world of calling

    Do you think that calling wild turkeys into shotgun range is some sort of art form that can never be yours?

    April 9, 2014 1 Photo

  • Fishing is a good way to introduce kids to the outdoors

    Few experiences are more rewarding than introducing a child to the outdoors. I remember teaching my daughters at the age of 3 to recognize the voice of a barred owl — “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all!” They were amazed they could identify a bird without seeing it.

    April 6, 2014

  • ‘A river runs through it’

    He was a natural at reading water. Whether in a kayak, a whitewater raft or a fishing boat, he simply saw water differently than most. He was good, no doubt about it. When I was learning to row a raft down whitewater, I asked him for his guidance. He would sit in the back of the raft coaching me on waters and their currents. With his help, I too began to see the waters differently and read the river.

    April 6, 2014

  • 040314 turkey feather Gettin’ ready for gobbler season: Step two — scouting

    So you want more hero pictures this year crouched behind a big gobbler fanning his tail out? Either that or the ever popular gripping him around the neck and straining to hold up his 20 plus pounds?

    April 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • 033014 Ellis.jpg Sportsmen’s tax dollars prove very beneficial

    If you enjoy wildlife recreation and conservation, you may want to find the nearest sportsman in your neighborhood and shake their hand. Ultimately, it’s their spending of dollars on the equipment to fuel the passion of the lifestyle they cherish that brings in millions of dollars to our state for wildlife.

    March 30, 2014 1 Photo