Winter stumbles in and leaves a smattering of snow across the lawn and under the now bare trees. As soon as this seasonal weather descends over the moribund landscape, the feeders become quite active. A twittering flock of fifty or so goldfinches appear, dotting all of the feeders and the ground below, too. A few chickadees, titmice and purple finches join in the feast. By late afternoon, the seed is nearly all gone, so I refill the tubes and trays just as the sun is fading away.
The next morning when I walk into the kitchen I hear the goldfinches before I see them. Danny and I sit down to breakfast and watch them in all their glory, some still quite yellow; others, a beautiful mottled green. Juncos come and go flashing those white tail feathers as they fly into the tangly forsythia bush. Some move from branch to branch, while other scrabble around in the leaf litter. One of half-hidden juncos looks quite large and dark, and, as it makes its way out from under the bush, we see that it's a towhee, a bird that should now be lolling in the southern sun!
Later that same day, as I come into the kitchen again, I hear new sounds and notice movement not just at the feeders, but throughout the backyard, on the lawn, in the bushes and trees. The area is alive with birds, hundreds of birds, tweeting, twitching and tail flicking. Robins! There are robins everywhere!
The robins keep coming ... over the treetops on the hill, over the top of the barn, from within the woods like a constant invasion of small, red-bellied planes, all the while tuuk-tuuking to one another. Occasionally, one breaks out in an abbreviated song. I head into the bedroom to check the other set of feeders and, more importantly, the very berried holly tree. Sure enough this area too is alive with robins.
Robins are flying in and out of the holly tree, the red berries looking very scarlet compared to the rusty breasts of the birds. I have a living, decorated, holiday tree complete with live ornaments in my yard. Some birds are carefully picking the berries. Sigh! Will I have any berried holly branches to decorate the mantel this year?
I slowly open the front door and another 40 or 50 robins up and fly away, scattering into the woods across the road. This is an absolutely huge flock if you add in the back- and side-yard birds ... maybe three or four hundred. Maybe more. I know robins, like other species, flock in the fall and winter, but I have never seen so many at once. Lingering robins show up on the Christmas Count in December, but usually they number in the single digits.
The American robin, Turdus migratorius, was named by the colonists for its English counterpart, solely because it had a red breast like said English robin. Did none of the colonists notice that our robin looks very similar and acts very similar to their blackbird, Turdus merula? Their blackbird with its yellow beak and shiny black feathers could be our robin in Goth disguise.
The robin is relatively tame and is a popular favorite since it is a harbinger of spring, showing up on lawns almost as soon as the snow melts. Three states -- Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin -- claim it for their state bird. Robins have no problem nesting around humans, in barns, in shrubbery, in trees. A neighbor had robins nesting on her front door lintel for years as if the bird had taken lessons from the phoebe.
In the literature, I find that, like many other species, the robin was once divided into subspecies: the Southern, Northwestern, Western (Canadian), Black-backed (New foundland) and San Lu cas. These primarily geographic divisions were made from studying collected skins with variation of plumage the deciding factor in allocating the subspecies.
Observations of fall and winter flocks of robins abound in the literature: from small family flocks to those of considerable size ... 25,000 (!) strong in some descriptions, especially along the migratory coastal path. These very noticeable, "restless and noisy" flocks tend to roost in low-lying, wooded and swampy areas. I wonder where my rabble of robins has gone to roost?
You might ask, shouldn't these birds have migrated already? Our breeding robins are probably in their protective flocks down South, while the ones I am observing here are perhaps from further north and, depending on the availability of food, may or may not continue on their journey south.
On three different days, late in the afternoon, I observe a huge flock of robins passing through, heading surprisingly northeast. I have no way of knowing whether these are the same birds or where they are roosting.
While the robins have not returned these last four days, I do hear that towhee every morning just before sunrise. T'wheeee, twheeee, twheee, but I cannot find the bird. We saw the towhee two days in a row, and now have heard it call every morning for the last week. The bird only calls that one time in the early morning and never again during the day. Very odd.
Maybe the bird is another species imitating the towhee, or maybe the towhee stays up all night, and calls just before he goes to sleep for the day. Another of the mysterious wonders of nature to be solved!
Clellie Lynch lives in East Chatham, N.Y.