Back in the day, robin sightings in southeast Michigan signaled the arrival of spring.
So how do experts explain the flock of the red-breasted birds that gathered under a tree in my Canton subdivision in mid-January? Or the three Michigan state birds tirelessly searching out berries in a nearby tree?
Is it global warming? Are the migrating birds’ internal GPS systems messed up?
As it turns out, there have always been a certain number of robins that reside in southeast Michigan in the wintry months — we just don’t notice them as much as in the spring and summer when they’re scampering around our backyards in search of a worm happy meal, explained Stephanie Beilke, Audubon Great Lakes’ senior manager, conservation science.
“The whole ‘a robin sighting is the first sign of spring’ saying is a misconception,” revealed Beilke. “While a large number of robins will migrate south when the weather turns cold, others remain in Michigan. They’re more visible in the warmer months because we’ll see them in our yards looking for food sources; but they can adapt their diet to eat berries and fruit off trees once the ground becomes too cold to find worms.
“They’re very nomadic birds, so once a food source is depleted, they’ll move to another location.”
If the weather becomes too blustery — for instance, when temperatures hover around zero for several days — the robins will generally move further south.
“For the most part, though, they manage to stay warm,” Beilke said. “When you think about it, we make our warmest down coats out of feathers, which the robins are covered in. There’s always going to be a mortality rate among robins in the winter, especially for the younger ones who may be experiencing their first winter or they can’t find food. But they do pretty well overall.”
According to Journey North, more robins migrate north once the average temperature reaches 37 degrees.
“Sometimes you see them and it’s so cold you think, ‘My goodness they’ll all die’,” said Journey North’s Elizabeth Howard. “It’s amazing, the way they survive winter is they fluff their feathers and get really big. Their internal temperature is 104° F and yet they can be in areas below freezing. That’s how well their feathers insulate them; there can even be a 100-degree difference just through those layers of feathers.”
Beilke said the trend of slightly warmer winters in Michigan may convince some robins to stay put, instead of heading to warmer climates, which may explain the increased sightings of the birds in January.
“But don’t get fooled into thinking it’s spring just because you see a robin in your front yard in the middle of January,” she said, smiling.