Ornithologist Available to Discuss Season’s Early Birds

Contact: Rebecca Holberton, (207) 581-2526

ORONO — Just half way through February, robins, historically iconic harbingers of spring, already have been spotted around the University of Maine campus and in surrounding communities. And northern cardinals, once considered only a few decades ago in Maine as “southerners from away” are now spending the winter at many local backyard feeders.

What’s changing? Are some birds’ migratory patterns shifting? And how are some of these former warm-weather species coping with this year’s heavy snowfall?

Ornithologist, associate professor of biological sciences and expert on wild bird migratory habits Rebecca Holberton is available to discuss some recent trends of a few notable wild birds locally, particularly as milder winters in the last few decades may be influencing patterns of migration, and even evolution.

Robins, she says, actually do not migrate far in the winter.

“Most people are surprised to learn that robins are rather ‘lazy’ migrants, compared to many other birds,” she says. “Most of our local robins don’t travel very far south, but gather in large groups for the winter — with some ‘roosts’ numbering up to 10,000 birds in some places. During the day, they fan out in small groups to look for food, and then congregate in woody areas to spend the night.” Many of the robins appearing now in Maine may be joined by some that have to move south from more northern Canadian areas, she suspects.

“So, while our robins may not be easily seen because they’re not spread out across our lawns, as they are in summer, but gathered up in big flocks, they are likely still nearby.”

Cardinals, “clearly a part of Maine’s landscape,” Holberton says, also wonders how well they would do without our help during the winter. She believes the less hardy of the species probably do not survive.

Some birds, including blue jays and chickadees, hoard seeds and nuts in the fall for a winter stash, but many rely on foraging day-to-day for seeds or any hardy invertebrates available. However, a two-foot blanket of snow can cover seed-bearing grasses or low bushes that also may be a food source. Robins, which rely a lot on fruit, may not be able to find abundant food supplies, Holberton says, especially during years when the fruit crop is poor.

Mild winters and springs will allow many of our migrants to return earlier, she says, but probably because of people’s love of feeding birds, as well as changing winter patterns.

“I think we have some birds, like cardinals and tufted titmice, that are becoming our year-round residents.”