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When we think of winter weather birds, the cardinals, chickadees, titmice and downy woodpeckers come to mind. Yet, many birds associated with warm summer days, such as bluebirds, hermit thrush and robins, are actually a part of the winter scene. Believe it or not these songbirds find ways to survive the harsh Connecticut winter.
Although each have their own unique survival strategies, all make one important transition when cold weather settles in: a switch from eating insects to fruit. We hardly know of their presence during the winter because they retreat into the wetlands or deep thickets.
This is especially true of the secretive hermit thrush. Every year a few hermit thrush stop here during fall migration and decide to stay in what is the northern limit of their winter range. Look for them where sumac, bittersweet, dogwood, poison ivy, pokeberry, wild apple, red cedar or almost any other fruit grows.
I sometimes find bluebirds hiding out in these groves, too. The sighting of a bluebird is thought to be a sure sign of spring, but most don't leave their breeding range in winter. Bluebirds are instead facultative migrants, which means they move south only during extreme weather or food shortages.
Bluebirds have other winter survival strategies besides switching their diet to fruit; they stay warm by huddling in tree cavities, and, like other birds, they will fluff their feathers to trap body heat. The larger robin reduces heat loss by one third when its fluffs up. If this strategy is coupled with shivering, it becomes even more effective.
Surprisingly, it really isn't the cold that threatens robins as much as it is lack of food. If wintering robins have an ample food supply their bodies have fuel enough to keep warm. Cold snowy days make life difficult for all wintering birds, but the one thing that can stop them dead is an ice storm. Ice renders fruit inaccessible to birds.
Wintering over is risky, but the trend for robins suggests it is worth the hardship. The Connecticut Audubon Winter Bird Count reported 1,000 robins each year until in the 1970s when the number began to increase sharply. Today, there are more than 45,000 robins wintering over in the state. It is worth it for the survivors because they get first claims on the best breeding territories.
Recently, I discovered robins concentrated along the Salmon River in East Hampton. They were along a bend where a pool of open water formed in a puddle of light. There were hundreds, it seemed, hunkered down along a steep sunny south facing hillside. Standing knee deep in snow, I simply closed my eyes, listened to their familiar call notes and pretended it was a warm spring day.
Soon the snow will melt, enticing these songbirds to emerge from the impenetrable riparian thickets. Hermit thrush will fly north, robins will return to the lawns and bluebirds to the gardens. Except then, they will hunt for protein-rich insects.
Robert Tougias is a birding author who lives in Colchester. He is available for presentations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.