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ANY QUESTIONS: What do robins eat during the winter?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:18 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Have a question about goings-on around town? This is part of a project called "Any Questions?" that takes on community curiosities and tries to address them. Submit your questions to submissions@ColumbiaMissourian.com or by using the form below this story.

Reader Joe Dillard has noticed a sign of spring around town lately: an “inordinate number” of those long-legged, orange-chested robins you see hopping around your yard and hunting for worms and snails after rainstorms. Columbia, unfortunately, hasn’t had many rainstorms lately, bringing us to Dillard’s question: What do robins eat during the winter?

Before we can get to the food — birds? Winter? How does that work?

It's important to note that though you don't see them as much, most robins stick around during the winter. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says on its website that robins are commonly found year-round pretty much anywhere in the continental United States, though they will more than likely be roosting in trees — in groups that sometimes include a quarter-million birds — rather than hopping around your yard. 

Those that do fly south are usually back well before the start of spring. John Faaborg, a professor of biological sciences at MU who does research on avian ecology, says he started seeing robins again about two weeks ago and these early arrivals are males who are setting up territories or returning to where they were last year.

Onto the main course

Because there aren't exactly earthworms aplenty during the winter, robins eat an "enormous variety of fruits" during the fall and winter, according to the Cornell website. Faaborg said in an email that because it has been so cold, groups of robins have been "hanging around crab apple trees or other sources with some old fruit remaining."

The enormous variety of fruit could have detrimental effects, though. Audobon Magazine warns to watch out for tipsy robins teetering around or smashing into your windows. Yes, you read that right. Fruit gives robins energy and keeps them alive, of course, but it also helps them let loose. Eating honeysuckle berries exclusively, the Cornell website says, can intoxicate them.

When warmer weather returns, robins will expand their diets to include a large number of earthworms, snails and a variety of insects. 

Supervising editor is Shaina Cavazos.


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