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McCallum: How to feed a robin

04/09/09 7:55AM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) Commentator Mary McCallum is relieved to see the snow disappear - because she's been worried about the robins around her house.

(MCCALLUM) Though robins are known to overwinter in some northern areas, most head south like many of us humans, and return when the mercury begins to rise. When weather warms up earlier down south our feathered friends start flying north earlier

It wasn't even March when I glimpsed a flurry of movement outside my window, and saw five birds winging to the crabapple tree by the porch. There was something about their size and flight pattern that made me move to another window for a better look. Robins. My heart sank.

Two winters ago I witnessed the return of the American robin to a white landscape that blanketed their food supply beneath a foot of snow, but I didn't give their return much thought until some friends reported that robins were flinging themselves against the windows. Nice chubby ones, all feathered up and healthy looking. Someone called a bird rescue organization to ask why these red breasted dive bombers were acting strangely, and got some disturbing news: the robins were addled by starvation and their plump little bellies were actually distended from hunger. Back in 1916 noted American naturalist and bird watcher John Burroughs wrote that a robin in such distress "never appears emaciated: it will starve and retain its plump appearance."

I quickly began to gather information about this sturdy member of the thrush family whose caroling song is commonly described as "cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up."  Its scientific name, Turdus migratorius, aptly describes its habit of migration between north and south.

Two years ago I watched groups of robins expend energy churning up patches of frozen dirt with their beaks, only to find that the worms and insects containing the protein necessary to fuel them after their long migration were still frozen underground.

Fruits and berries are another food source for robins, but ski season was still in full swing so they weren't likely to find much more than a handful of frozen crabapples rattling on winter branches.

So I did what might make a wildlife biologist shudder - I did a human intervention. I bought worms - fat slippery night crawlers from the refrigerated section of the local general store.

Robins are not easy to feed. They don't eat seed or sit on feeders. But a small box of potting soil laced with worms and sprinkled with sliced strawberries eventually lured them in. I watched through binoculars as they gobbled the feast while a curtain of heavy wet snowflakes fell around them.
 
Friends and I stimulated the local economy by buying up all the frozen strawberries and night crawlers we could find in area stores.

Since then, I've kept watch for robins that return too soon and I fed a few again this year. But now the snow-pack is nearly gone, and barring another big storm - it's still Vermont after all - it should be a while before I'll be buying worms again.
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