Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 9
March 1-7, 2001
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Catering to Robins

The north wind doth blow,
And we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then,
Poor thing?

-"The North Wind Doth Blow"

The wind from the north did blow, and with it came snow in big and wet and mushy flakes. It covered the ground here in North County with more than four inches by late afternoon. By the following morning, it was melting faster than it had fallen.

What did poor robin do? He arrived, that's what he did. He and at least 26 other plump and lively redbreasts hopped about the lawn when I returned home after doing some errands.

I've seen the first robins of the year earlier, sometimes in January, but they were resident birds that winter over in the thick understory of the steep bank that drops down to Stoney Creek. Presumably, these were 'new' robins of a migratory flock headed somewhere to the north.

It was February 24, which was about on schedule for migrants. But the day after an appreciable snowfall?

What Did Poor Robin Do?

Already, there were a few open patches in the snow as it melted in the tracks of where I walked, tending 21 bird feeders on the east lawn. And that's where the robins congregated.

I tried in vain for an accurate count, but they moved around too gingerly for me to distinguish those I tallied and those I didn't. I did check off 27 for sure, with possibly five or 10 more not counted, and all obviously hungry. The previous day had been snotty, probably little food was available, and they had spent considerable energy just weathering the storm, which thankfully was short-lived.

As I watched them stalk the bare and wet spots where grasses had turned a rusty brown in this winter more severe than recent ones, I wondered what they could find to satisfy their appetites. What bugs or worms would venture close to the surface of the tiny barren islands amidst all that snow?

They showed little interest in the cracked and whole-kernel corn, the safflower, thistle, millet, sunflower and other seeds in feeders and scattered on the ground for the birds I feed daily. Robins prefer juicy worms and insects, a high-protein diet, or perhaps fruit.

I thought of Emily Dickinson's lines:

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his nest again
I shall not live in vain.

These robins were far from fainting, but I knew to continue their migration, they had to eat. When I dropped to my knees to closely examine a few bare spots, I couldn't detect anything emerging from the soil that would offer a few calories to famished birds.

I decided not to live in vain, to contribute something, and soon I was sprinkling currants and chopped apples on the lawn. I retreated to the porch, where I didn't have to wait long. Nearly all the birds abandoned their hunt for living critters in favor of the currants. A few chose the chopped apples, but obviously dried currants were preferred.

How different they fed. When on the hunt for worms, insects and larvae, robins hop about, stop, then remain motionless as they cock their head to one side. They do this because they see best through the center of one eye at a time - and it takes some seeing to spot a small bug or perhaps just the tip of a worm emerging from the ground.

Their eye arrangement makes it possible for them to see straight ahead and off to both sides at the same time, but to focus properly on something tiny, they must tilt their head and look through the center of the eye closest to their prey. That's the way they were seeking a meal - until the currants and small apple chunks were laid out for them.

Once they discovered an easy handout, they just hopped here and there snatching a bite as they went - and swallowing it whole - so different from how they feed on a worm or large insect. They feasted like a grackle or crow, so unrobin-like.

Soon the currants and apples were gone. I tossed out some grapes. which soon disappeared, and once again the robins resumed stalking bare spots for worms and bugs, but I saw none of them score.

Fueled for Flight

In early afternoon, all but one departed, taking flight across Stoney Creek to the north, leaving me to ponder whether the one left behind was a local bird that just happened on the lawn when the others arrived - or possibly a migrant who liked things hereabouts and decided to stay.

It spent the remainder of the afternoon on the lawn and the rail fence, and I wondered where the others were headed. Robins are due in New England by mid-March; some will reach Alaska and Northern Canada by the end of the month, well before the snow has melted.

Like bluebirds, and unlike other kin of the thrushes, robins migrate in flocks during the day. Others of the general thrush family, with the exception of bluebirds, travel singly at night. Those that left our lawn had a good meal within, enough to take them many a mile.

Soon the year-'round robins of the treed and steep slope dropping down to Stoney Creek will move to the lawn to build nests in the crotches of the maples, black walnuts and catalpas, also the tall and aged apple tree. Others choose the midst of the decorative shrubs at the porch where only a screen separates them from the household cats.

Fishing by the Bird

By the time the first male robin lights high in the oldest black walnut tree, spreads its tail and whistles the familiar song that lays claim to its territory for the summer, it usually means it's time to go fishing for yellow perch as the spawning run develops in freshwaters at the heads of tributaries.

But before dunking shad darts with small minnows attached for perch, priority must go to cleaning bird feeders. Researchers are finding more and more birds afflicted by various diseases - some deadly and others causing blindness or other serious problems - at feeders not cleaned regularly.

Warmer weather will mean higher concentrations of songbirds at feeders, thus the more likelihood of disease transmission. And with 21 feeders and a dozen bird houses to scour, I'd better get at it - or risk missing out on the first run of perch at Waysons Corner on the Patuxent.

Cleaning feeders properly involves scraping the dried seeds, shells and droppings, then scrubbing well with a solution of 10 percent bleach and the remainder water, then rinsing and drying thoroughly before refilling.

The same treatment is advised for bird houses. All the previous nesting materials should be removed and the interior scrubbed with the bleach solution. For bird houses that have no hatches to make removal of nest materials possible or to permit scrubbing, a thorough spraying with Lysol is in order; then allow the dwelling to air thoroughly for several days before being hung or mounted again.

There's much more to feeding, attracting and housing birds than just putting up houses and feeders and providing the seeds. These attract birds; concentrations of birds increase chances of disease transmission. The bottom line: Houses and feeders not taken care of correctly can do more damage than good.

Keep this in mind while waiting for the birds of spring to arrive.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly