feathered waves

Approximately 25 robins descended on our yard at midday yesterday, attacking the stunted foundation plantings with gusto.

These pitiful Yaupon hollies have been planted in dense shade on a slope that is not well-drained in heavy downpours, so that they go long periods in dry, poor soil, and some few days every season they sit in water up to their ankles.  Twice a year the landlord’s appointed comes by and cuts them into hard geometric shapes, completely obliterating any grace they’ve managed to attain.

However, despite these obstacles, the holly bushes still manage to put out a small crop of berries each winter, and these little red jewels are gourmet treats to the American Robin.  At one point eight or nine rusty-breasted, loudly chattering birds managed to squeeze onto one small holly just in front of the window my desk faces.  Within a handful of minutes, they had stripped it of every single berry.

I did not photograph the visit of this mid-sized flock, being too awed by their raucous party’s sudden appearance to move.

The photo above is of a lovely, sunstruck Nandina, a plant for which I developed a fondness — before discovering it’s considered a dangerous invasive.  It’s been well-used as a landscape plant in and around my hometown of Atlanta, and when you see its beautiful foliage, it is not hard to understand why.  Although the berries are the focal point in this picture, they’re usually just a bonus, to my way of thinking.

We have one just across our lane, rooted in the slope where it catches the afternoon rays and is a rare spot of bright color in the forested winter landscape.  Watching the robins strip the holly bushes, immediately depositing some of those berries almost undigested along their path, was a stark reminder that this is exactly how the Nandina is spreading through our native woods.

I was temporarily seized with the urge to go and rip out the one framed by my window, before reminding myself that it’s not my right to mess with land that is not my own.  That couple of acres is not even owned by my landlord, so I can’t discuss it with him, either.  (Nonetheless, I feel these woods are mine — or more accurately, that we belong to each other.  Property rights are such a strange, unnatural creation, the soul really cannot be expected to understand.)

Eventually, the flock took off, a few at a time, heading up the hill in a swirling mass that settled down periodically at the forest’s edge to feed, finally disappearing from sight.  They left several feathers in their broad wake.

Later that day, I saw two more flocks.  One of them was quite a large group, maybe 50 birds, that crossed the road in front of my vehicle, all flying in a straight line.  The other was a smaller group, maybe 12 or 15, that was eating at the Botanical Gardens and slowly progressing, in a similar fashion as the group that had visited our home, swirling up, finding a food shrub, stripping it, and then moving on again en masse.

This last time, I was able to double-check that they were indeed headed roughly north, based on the growth pattern of the lichens on the nearby trees.  See, it had finally occurred to me by then that I might be witnessing part of a migration.

American robins are year-round residents here.  I’ll see a few all winter long, and I’ll always be able to find a couple in the woods through the heat of summer.  And yet they do migrate.  The majority of them seem to be only passing through, in little groups or large flocks.

Last year, I was amused by the sight of seven robins standing on my lawn, all facing precisely due south (it was the robot-like precision that was funny somehow), yet pecking the ground for grubs, worms, insects, whatever they could find in mid-autumn, even as they moved in military formation.  I was curious enough about yesterday’s mass visitation to do a little research, though.

It seems American robins are facultative migrants; that is, they move where the food is.  They don’t move south with the onset of the cold; these tough birds have been found foraging in subarctic regions in winter, and small flocks will stay wherever there is food, or follow the food as the seasons change.  That explains why I see them all year ’round, yet why we’re witnessing a migration now.  Or a sort of migration.

You can imagine that their migration patterns are complex and flexible.  Actually, what we’re seeing now is typically known as “waves of robins,” and it’s viewed as one of those signs of spring.  Depending on where you are in the country, (i.e., the Pacific Northwest), the “signs of spring” part may merely be an old wives’ tale inherited from the eastern states.

But here it’s true:  these robins are headed north, bringing spring with them on feathered waves.

Nothing is as sure a sign of the change of seasons as hearing the male robin’s territorial spring song (click to listen), a bright and cheerful creation.  So far it’s been just peeks, tuts, zeeups, and whinnies (and mostly the first two).  But you can be sure I’ve got my ears open.

Have you seen any recent flocks of migrating birds where you live?

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7 Responses to “feathered waves”

  1. Meredith, I sympathize about the badly pruned hollies. My rented townhouse in PA has a yew by the front door. I try to prune it gently so that it retains its natural shape — but every so often, I come home to find it pruned into an unbelievably ugly box. (Although the yew grows quickly, so that it’s box-shape doesn’t last very long.)

    Thanks for letting me know that the robins are heading north. I have a feeling it will be a while yet before I see them in Maine. -Jean

  2. Thankfully, our eyes don’t know boundaries!

    It will be a while before the robins show up here and once I spot one, my excitement rises because they are the true harbigners of Spring in my region. They don’t mind an unexpected sudden snowfall, but they generally don’t show up until they know the warmth is coming and I trust them to tell me things a calendar can’t. I can’t wait to see them again.

    That cascade of berries is so pretty against the starkness. I always love a round shape in a garden softening the harder edges of shrubs. It’s too bad it’s such an invasive plant ( I always feel sorta bad for those plants which we have to ruthlessly destroy if we have the opportunity).

  3. Dear Meredith, What a fascinating account of the American robins who appear to be very dissimilar from their English counterparts. Here you seldom see more than one at a time – they are very territorial – but he or she is usually exceptionally tame, coming up very close when one is at work in the garden.

    I thought your photograph of the berries to be delightful. They look so juicy.

  4. What a shame to hear that those Nandina berries are a pest. Seeing the picture of them glowing in the sun in contrast to the wintry background is entrancing. We don’t tend to get big flocks of birds migrating where I am, but when conditions are tough in the mountains we do have visits from Gang gangs and Black Cockatoos. the later tend to fly through up high, letting out an occasional mournful cry.

  5. At least the bush provided some nourishment for those traveling robins. I’ve had a few to hit my birdfeeder the last few days.

  6. I love the “waves of robins” image! What a delightful thing to see. I have never lived in a place that had true seasons (first CA, now FL), but I imagine that during winter when you’re buried in cold and snow, it is pure delight to see the first indications that spring is coming.

  7. Your photo of the Nandina berries are beautiful. They grow here in the desert as well, but are not considered invasive because they will not grow unless we provide supplemental water. I think robins are smart to take advantage of food wherever they find, regardless of the time of year :^)

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