Why Are There So Many Robins in East Lansing?

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Jim Pivarnik

Some folks are looking out the windows of East Lansing and asking: Why are there so many robins, and why are they showing up in big groups in the dead of winter?

Wrote one ELi reader, “Just looked out our kitchen window and saw four robins on a branch, and there are a bunch flying around and visiting the feeder. Robins are not unusual, but this is a LOT of robins at one time.” 

People talk about spotting “the first robin of spring,” as if members of the species haven’t stayed all winter. In fact, many of the robins of Michigan over-winter.

When you see them in the spring, robins are often hopping about solo or in mating pairs. You may find them nesting around your house or outbuildings.

But in the winter, according to Cornell’s ornithology lab, “robins form nomadic flocks, which can consist of hundreds to thousands of birds.”

Because we don’t expect this based on what we see robins do in the spring and summer, we may find it surprising when we see many of them together. But it’s normal.

Say the folks from Cornell, “When spring rolls around, these flocks split up. Suddenly we start seeing American Robins yanking worms out of our yards again, and it’s easy to assume they’ve ‘returned’ from migration. But what we’re seeing is the switch from being nonterritorial [flocks] in the winter-time to aggressively defending a territory in advance of courting and raising chicks.”

In places like East Lansing, robins eat fruit and berries in the winter. When I was enjoying a hike through the snow of the Northern Tier Trail with a friend on Thursday morning, we saw a couple of robins doing just that – eating berries off leafless shrubs that line the trail.

But robins also take advantage of suburban feeders in winter, so you may see them at the feeders in your yard. Again, this may mean you see more of them than you usually see from your window – because during the spring, robins are often on the ground, out of sight from your window perch.

Having them at the feeders means getting a good look at them from the window, and they are that much more notable when there are so many of them.

Finally, one reason you may see more robins right now is because, like many birds that overwinter here, they seek clean water to keep their feathers clean. Feathers that are matted down don’t work as well to keep a bird warm.

So, if you have a heated birdbath that you keep clean, or your neighbor does, you may see robins showing up in flocks to use it, because outside water that isn’t heated right now is frozen.

My two heated birdbaths are very busy right now! The robins are definitely spending a lot of time keeping clean.

By the way, heated birdbaths aren’t warm to the touch. These devices keep the water just above freezing. The idea is not to be a hot tub for the birds, but just to help them by providing enough liquid water to stay clean.

You can get a heated birdbath at many local stores, including Wild Birds Unlimited. You may need to also buy yourself an outdoor extension cord at a local hardware or drug store.

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