Forget tradition! For a long time it was customary to believe that the first appearance of an American Robin in the new year was a harbinger of spring.
Now we know better. Robins can be seen throughout the year around New York Harbor. In fact robins have been known to overwinter in New York State since at least the early 1900s.
Many robins, but certainly not all, arrive to New York Harbor for the winter from nesting sites in eastern Canada. Sometimes huge flocks of robins (into the hundreds of thousands) will overwinter around the harbor, depending largely on the severity of the weather and the abundance of food
This winter something must be going on up north, because it’s a good season to see robins. Many robins have gathered together in flocks that are huge, staying in sheltered woods or wetlands at night and flying out during the day to feed.
From Arthur Kill down to Great Kills, and from Jamaica Bay down to Sandy Hook Bay I have spotted abundant amounts of American robins spending the winter with us. Some flocks have just around 100 birds, while others have well over a thousand. The number of birds is astonishing, especially when you consider many people consider our urban-suburban environment largely devoid of any wildlife.
The robins are not alone either. This winter they are regularly keeping company with cedar waxwings and yellow-rumped warblers. These three birds have little in common, other than their wintertime food preferences.
What do these birds eat when they can’t get insects or worms in a frozen, snowy landscape? Berries are the answer. These birds become mainly fruit eaters to survive northern winters.
American Holly and Red Cedars berries must be especially delicious this year after several freezing and thawing cycles. They are also bountiful and offer many calories for the birds to survive.
Yet, red cedars aren’t really cedars, they are junipers, and the berries aren’t really berries, they are cones with a fleshy covering. Still good eating if you are hungry bird. With their high sugar content (30%) these “berries” are a great resource for overwintering birds, especially since these birds are well adapted to eating waxy berries. They are able to secrete an enzyme in their digestive system to break down the wax.
Both waxwings and yellow-rumps are expert berry eaters and will travel far and wide in search of good berry reserves. They’re very adept at finding their preferred food and rarely visit birdfeeders.
During winter days all three species of birds, robins, waxwings, and yellow-rumps along with maybe a few loiterers, such as Purple or House finches can be seen feeding almost continually, storing up fat that they burn off at night to keep warm.
These birds are hardy enough to survive our winters as long as they have a safe place to roost at night, open water to drink, and food in the form of berries. It helps that our existing wetlands and maritime forests around New York Harbor have a ready supply of fruit to satisfy the needs for these berry eating birds.