Birds like it here, too

February 8, 2011

By Jane Garrison

In January, a friend and I took a walk in Beaver Lake Park, winding through dense, dark woods. We came into an opening and were shocked by the rush and noise of dozens of large birds exploding into the sky.

It looked like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. We couldn’t imagine what they were until one lit on a branch next to us. It was just a big, fat robin.

Most of us think robins migrate and return in spring as expressed by writers of poetry and song. So, this rather boisterous display by these supposedly sweet birds in January was quite a shock. It makes more sense when you know that the English robin does leave in winter and return in spring, and most of those old writers were from England.

Research told me that robins don’t migrate anymore, at least not here. They, like Canada geese, Brewer’s blackbirds, and Western gulls find it easier to just hang out with us all winter. In fact, some sources say our robins may have never migrated.

I found out, too, that our robins form flocks in winter, moving to nearby wooded areas. They come back to our yards in spring to mate, make nests and raise their young. And when they do, they are extremely territorial. A crazy attack on your windows can occur when they see their reflection and think it’s some other robin trying to horn in on their territory. They will fight that guy in the window until he is gone or dead. It might be a good idea to cover the window if this ever happens at your house.

Some robins do migrate in our hemisphere and are good fliers, travelling in large flocks from Canada to Guatemala. However, people from Minnesota to Massachusetts blogged to explain that robins are now overwintering in their neighborhoods, and no one seems sure why some migrate and some do not. It can’t be just a climate issue.

We have made it easier for birds to stay here. Robins like our lawns and composted beds full of worms and our orchards with leftover fruit. Gulls don’t need to winter at the coast when they can just go to the landfill and fill up. Blackbirds like trash and especially parking lots where they can pick up fast food. Canada geese prefer mowed lawns rather than wild growth by lakes and streams, where predators hide.

In looking at the big picture, we have helped create a livable place here for these old migrators. In doing so, we are changing their habits, their diets and their physical well-being. In a way, they are becoming more like us.

Jane Garrison is a local landscape architect and master gardener who gardens in glacial till on the plateau.

Master Gardeners’corner

Master gardeners are busy, even in winter, answering your questions. Call us at 206-296-3440. Keep checking this newspaper for clinic dates and locations this spring.

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