Beyond Your Backyard: How Robins Survive the Cold

  American Robin getting water from a spring site. Spring sites flow all winter long in several areas, providing water sources even during the extreme cold

American Robin getting water from a spring site. Spring sites flow all winter long in several areas, providing water sources even during the extreme cold

Kimberly J. Epp

"Migrate early, they said. It would be beautiful on the prairies, they said." ...Well, we can think that migrating birds might gripe about the weather as we humans do, but they likely are more concerned with the basic needs of survival; food, water and shelter/cover.

American Robins have been back for a few weeks already. Don't they know that Spring on the prairies means four more weeks of winter? Well, worry not. They are adapted to survive the cold. In fact, their techniques are similar to the techniques used by the birds that spend the entire winter here.

So what do they do? For one, they need to stay dry. Robins preen their outer counter feathers to keep them clean, oiled and waterproofed. The snow won't melt on the cold feathers. Rain slides off. Their feet, like other birds are kept at lower temperatures so that the energy is focused to warm the core - and so they don't freeze their feet. The circulation in the feet is so fast that the blood doesn't even have time to chill.

  American Robin keeping warm in the insulated snow under the cover of an evergreen.

American Robin keeping warm in the insulated snow under the cover of an evergreen.

At night, robins must seek shelter away from the cold, snow and wind. These shelters may be in bushes, buildings or trees. Also, as with other small birds on cold days, robins appear almost chubbier. They are keeping warm by puffing out their feathers. Down feathers right next to the belly, provide the most insulating warmth.

Puffed out feathers insulate the bird's internal organs. Multiple layers of feathers are wonderful insulators. Then, you may notice on really cold days your feeders are more active. Birds must consume more calories to aid in their survival, especially for survival during the long cold night when they don't feed.

Robins are insect eaters primarily, but they will find shriveled up berries to eat. They also find insects by poking in the leaf litter. If the fruit goes scarce, the robins will usually leave the area. They don't want to be stuck around in case a storm comes, without any food available to them.

The Canada Geese arrived early as well, and like us, are likely wondering when the temperatures will finally warm. Canada Geese will huddle together in large groups to keep warm. They often will stand on one leg while the other is being warmed up in their belly down feathers - then switch legs.

We can help these birds and other wildlife by still providing water in the form of a heated bird bath or even a heated dog bowl. If you have some frozen cranberries, place them near the water source for the robins. But even though you may be concerned, fret not, for robins ARE adapted to surviving these temperatures. And as soon as it warms, the birds will be playing catch-up and start nesting.

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Photo # 1 - American Robin keeping warm in the insulated snow under the cover of an evergreen.

Photo # 2 - .

(Photo credits unknown)

Epp is an environmental writer and naturalist with over 25 years of experience in environmental enforcement, research, education and writing. She can be reached at kepp@shaw.ca.

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