January 31st, the end of the first month of the new year, I sat at my desk staring out the window behind the desk, looking at a snow covered landscape. The sky was gray and snow was falling lightly. Trees and bushes stood out like lines in an etching.
Birds in the trees and bushes flew back and forth to my feeder and the ground below adding color to the scene. There were cardinals and blue jays. There were mourning doves and tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches and a red-bellied woodpecker. There were tree sparrows and dark-eyed juncos and goldfinches. There were six cowbirds, one song sparrow and two white-crowned sparrows.
As I watched a small flock of blue jay-size birds landed in the tree nearest the feeder. There were seven of them, birds with bright orange breasts. Robins! The color of the head of each was darker than its back marking them all as males.
Robins are a sign of spring. We expect to see the earliest the end of February, not the end of January, certainly not in a hard winter such as we have been having.
Or course there were those cowbirds and the song sparrow and the white-crowned sparrows. But the cowbirds and the song sparrow have been coming to my feeder all winter. For whatever reason they did not migrate south last fall. And the white-crowned sparrows just appeared at my feeder about a week earlier. Could they be early spring arrivals?
Every winter there are a few robins, like those cowbirds and the song sparrow, that do not migrate. I saw a robin early in January. It flew across the road in front of my car as I was driving on a country road. But those robins that don't migrate in the fall stay in secluded places, brushy thickets or dense stands of trees. Sometimes they are lone birds, individuals, and sometimes they are in small flocks. I hadn't seen robins anywhere around my feeder, or in my yard, any time this winter.
Robins in January in northern Indiana, anywhere in Indiana, or in February are birds to talk about. Two days after I saw the robins in my yard a friend told me she had recently seen a small flock of robins near her home. Two days later I stopped at the garage where I have my car serviced and one of the mechanics asked, "Hey Neil, what's with the robins?" He, too, had recently seen robins. Later that same day when I went in the bank two men told me they had seen a flock of robins days before.
So what is it with the robins? Have those I saw plus those others have seen lately and told me about been around all winter? There are a few robins, and bluebirds, that don't migrate in the fall every year. They are spotted and reported by birders out on Christmas bird counts every year. But I didn't hear of an unusual number of robins being seen and reported this winter. I didn't hear of any robins, as a matter of fact, but I only heard the reports of two Christmas bird counts.
If the robins I saw in the tree in my yard the last day of January and those I've been told about recently haven't been around all winter they must be early migrants. That seems unlikely, however, especially with the winter weather we've had in northern Indiana this winter.
It's been a hard winter, not only for us but well south of us. Think about those news reports of snow and ice and traffic tied up in Atlanta, Georgia last month. Could the bad weather to the south have started robins and white-crowned sparrows and perhaps other birds migrating early? If they started traveling they'd naturally fly north this time of year. Wouldn't they?