Harbingers of Spring: The Wintering Robins of the River Gorge

I am always amazed by the flocks of robins that remain into the frosty midwestern fall, and winter over in the river gorge. Their plumage is less vibrant than in summer, a dull orange brown rather than red, and their song is not the usual “cheerily, cheerio.” Rather they emit twitters as they burst in flight from the path strewn with red and gold maple and oak leaves. The bird known as the harbinger of spring plays a trick on us.

Most songbirds migrate south at the end of the midwestern summer. They navigate using stars and landmarks and by sensing the earth’s magnetic field and patterns of polarized light humans are unable to see. ( Chu, Songbird Journeys) While migrating across vast distances of ocean and land, birds that don’t migrate face greater challenges. According to Miyoko Chu “The birds that reside in cold wintery places are likely to have even shorter lives than the migrants that travel thousands of miles back and forth each year. To beat the odds, they rely on their innovations–their snowy excavations, their hypothermic slumbers, their deft harvest of seeds from pinecones, their astute memories for recovering stored food, their tricks for digesting waxy sustances useless to other birds. They take the gamble that they will survive, that they will be able to choose a place to breed perhaps even before the first Neotropical migrant crosses the Gulf of Mexico, and that they will soon harvest the gifts of summer for their young” (214).

In our busy lives we don’t think about the decisions birds are making as the cold sets in. Do I stay or do I go? It seems that birds do things out of habit. Migrating birds prefer to migrate to the same place each winter and return to nest in the same place in the spring. I suspect the wintering robins in the gorge are the same flocks from last year, perhaps with the new additions. Most songbirds only live about 2 years. As long as there is food and water and shelter in the trees, the flock has a chance to survive. After enduring the Minnesota winter, their red breasts and cheerily, cheerio mating calls truly earn them the title of “harbingers of spring.”

Source Cited:
Chu, Miyoko.Songbird Journeys. Walker Publishing Co., 2006.