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Levin: Winter Robins

02/08/12 7:55AM By Ted Levin
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(Host) Naturalist and commentator Ted Levin says that this winter, one of our most iconic signs of spring has been with us all along.

(Levin) During the summer of 2002, I planted several winterberry bushes on the east side of the garden. Winterberry is a shrubby, deciduous holly that belongs to the same genus - Ilex - as the better-known, thorny-leaved, evergreen, American holly. As the name suggests, winterberry produces fruit late in the year. Its bright red berries hug leafless branches through much of the winter and when seen from a distance, give that part of our yard a rosy blush. Winterberry look particularly dazzling against a snowfall.

It's often found in wetlands, along the edge of ponds and lakes. The berries are neon bright in the winter gloom, but winter birds eat them only when richer, fattier, more nutritious berries have been harvested.

For ten years, my winterberry bushes held their fruit right through the winter. But this year, they were gone by mid-January - consumed by a small flock of equally colorful robins.

Generally speaking, robins pass through Vermont in late October and early November. Occasionally, we'll see one in early December, and once, many years ago, a small flock overwintered at a dairy farm in Plainfield, New Hampshire, surviving on maggots mined from the mountains of manure behind the barn.

This winter, a flock of seven robins hung around our yard. During the warm weather of late fall and early winter the robins ate earthworms in the garden; when the weather turned cold, they ate the winterberries. And when the very last berry was gone, the robins vanished.

There aren't many birds as utterly familiar as the robin. Their customary arrival in late February is marked on calendars and broadcast in the media. They run helter-skelter on lawns and nest on porches and in ornamental trees around the yard, often at eye-level. At least in North America, robin's egg-blue is a universally known color.

Their spring and summer activities are easy to predict, but where they make their winter home depends on weather and food, and both are fickle commodities. One bitter cold winter, more than twenty-five years ago, tens of millions of robins descended on the Everglades. They were everywhere and hungry, stripping berries from hammock bushes and chasing down little white moths. They lined rain puddles like animated bathtub toys, a dozen or more at puddle after puddle. But the very next winter the very same region was nearly robinless.

Historically, the robin's winter range is in the Southeast, from lower New York to Georgia, though it's not uncommon for a few to stay here through the winter - in sheltered spots where food is plentiful. But this year, flocks of robins have been reported throughout our region, and that's probably due to recent climate patterns that have been anything but predictable.

Soon after the robins departed, a red-bellied woodpecker appeared in the yard, foraging in the crabapples. A bird that's only recently extended its range into Vermont - it's another indicator of a warming world.
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