For Release January 19, 1999
Just Because You Dont See Them, Doesnt Mean They Arent Here
by Chuck Otte, County Extension Agent
With the nicer weather most of last week, I received a couple of phone calls and comments from people who were surprised to see robins in their yards. Perhaps some of the callers were hopeful that seeing robins meant an early spring was in order. At least one of the callers said they were stunned to see robins in January. Most people are even more stunned when I tell them that robins are surprisingly common in our area in the winter time.
The end of December we held the 41st annual Junction City Christmas Bird Count. In all 41 of those counts there have been robins recorded. An equally surprising item is that in all 41 of those counts there have also been Eastern Bluebirds recorded. In total, there are eighteen species that have been recorded in all 41 of the bird counts.
Most wildlife changes as the seasons change. Robins and bluebirds spend the spring and summer gathering insects, pulling worms out of our lawns and raising their young. But by October and November the young are feeding themselves, most insects have died or gone into hibernation and the worms have burrowed deep below the reach of probing bills. Many insect eating bird species have no adaptation to adjust for this loss of food, so they go south far enough to insure a food supply until spring returns in the north.
Some hardy species have learned to adjust. Some birds switch over to seeds, either natural or those put out by people, and supplement these seeds with insects that they find hibernating behind the bark of trees or in the wood of trees. Creepers, nuthatches and woodpeckers are all good examples. Others switch completely to plant based diets. Robins and bluebirds are some of the best known. The number of robins and bluebirds that stay around this area is completely dependent on how much food is available. The severity of the winter has very little to do with overwinteing numbers of these species, its the food that regulates this.
If you want to find bluebirds or robins this time of year look for open water and cedar trees with lots of berries. They will also feed on hackberries and the large swollen buds of cottonwoods, maples or elms. Unless you have these food or water sources in your yard, you probably arent going to see robins until March..
Another interesting behavior change occurs in the winter. Many species of birds form large flocks. In the spring and summer, during the breeding season, many of these species would be in pairs or family groups and would fiercely defend their territory from others of their own species. But in the fall these birds form large flocks because they instinctively know that there is safety in numbers and they have a better chance of surviving the winter. Blackbirds and crows will form flocks in the thousands. I seldom see one robin this time of year, its usually a flock of at least 25. Its not uncommon around the lake, in the winter, to see a dozen eagles sitting together in a tree.
But we often dont see these winter residents. Were busy speeding here or there and the landscape flies by the window as a painting without any observed detail. But if you take just a few minutes and start to really look at that painting (or in this case nature) all of a sudden you see detail that you may have overlooked a hundred times before. On second look that tree is full of birds. Those lumps out on the ice of Milford Lake arent all Canada Geese, some of them are Bald Eagles. That crabapple tree looks funny because its full of Cedar Waxwings eating the frozen crabapples.
Theres a lot of nature to see in the winter. Think like a critter trying to survive the winter, find the food, find the water and youll be surprised at what youll see there!
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