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Robin migration: When it starts and why you might see robins during the winter

Photo of an american robin

Each year, since I was a little kid, my mom and I take guesses about when we will see the first robins of the year.

Now that I live in northwest Iowa and she lives in eastern Iowa, she usually sees them first, so I usually guess earlier than I would expect to see them here.

However, sometimes people will see a robin in the middle of winter and think spring is on its way. That’s not quite an accurate predictor, because robin migration can be quite varied. Here are some fun facts about robin migration.

1. Some robins don’t migrate.

American robin breeding grounds are throughout Alaska and most of Canada, but they also spend time year-round throughout the vast majority of the U.S. On their range map (click here), the only specifically overwintering grounds for the robin is in southern points of the U.S. and Mexico.

(Read about spring waterfowl migration)

If there are robins around you in the winter, you might not see them, because they spend more time roosting in trees and less time looking for food in your yard like they would during breeding season.

Some robins also just move as far as they need to in search of fruit. They might move a little bit and then have to fly a bit farther south when they need a more abundant supply of fruit and then fly a little farther south when they need more food.

Photo of an american robin

2. Robin food loves 37-degree temperatures.

As ground thaws in the spring, robins begin to dig for earthworms and insects. It is because of those food sources that robins tend to start showing up, or at least becoming more visible to human populations, when temperatures hit 37 degrees. It is not that robins themselves like that temperature but because their food does. Robins migrate in response to food more than to temperature.

Robins also eat different meals at different points in the day. Have you ever heard the phrase, “The early bird catches the worm”? In the morning, robins eat more earthworms, and by afternoon they switch to fruit.

(Learn about birds that overwinter in Iowa)

3. Singing is key.

Marking where robins are first sited in the spring can be confusing because of the factors above. Robins that are spotted might not be birds that are migrating north and instead might be birds that are overwintering.

The biggest key to spotting robins that are migrating to their breeding grounds is singing. American robins typically don’t sing — there are exceptions — until they arrive at their breeding territory because a song is the way that male robins defend their territory.

It just sounds like spring, doesn’t it?

Photo of robin fledgings in the nest

16 Comments

  1. Alison on November 11, 2019 at 7:44 am

    I was just wondering when they’d appear here in central FL. All winter they flock over our house at sunrise then again at sunset to roost in the nearby woods. It’s an amazing sight!

    • Donna on November 18, 2019 at 8:16 am

      Hi Alison – I’m in the Boston area and just saw a whole tree of robins. It look like they were packing up to leave for warmer weather— I will be curious to see if they’re around the rest of the week.— HAPPY Robin watching – Donna

  2. Jerry on November 6, 2019 at 9:42 pm

    November 06 2020- about 16:00 hours (4 pm). Just finished seeing hundreds of robins in wave after wave flying about back yard, roosting in trees, flying away, only to be replaced by more and more and more,repeating the pattern for about 30 minutes and then they were gone! I have never seen a spectacle like this live before-on television perhaps,but never in person,it was pretty amazing. Markdale, Ontario, Canada

    • Teresa on November 7, 2019 at 1:43 pm

      Just walked outside to a yard full of robins feasting on our dogwood berries and it almost seems as though they’re having a party flying here and there chasing each other. I’m in NW Georgia USA.
      November 7, 2019

    • See on November 8, 2019 at 8:29 am

      I’m watching about 20 Robins now on November 8th 2019 in NE Ohio by Lake Erie eating the tiny crab apple berries from my tree .

  3. Carl Dobson on November 3, 2019 at 7:00 pm

    Watched a very large number of Robins traveling south this afternoon in the fields just west of Bentonville AR. It was a disorganized group of many thousand passing through for about two hours. Some would peel off and land in our yard looking for food. Observed up to twenty birds in the yard at any give. Time. At evening many were see brooding in nearby woods

  4. Angie Maltese on October 31, 2019 at 12:01 pm

    Just saw a female American robin in our mountain ash tree eating berries & perching on the tree branches. I haven’t noticed a robin in our yard since mid-August. We had 2 successful robin nests this past spring/summer in our backyard. So happy to have seen one. I live in Thunder Bay,Ontario Canada in Northern Ontario on the tip of Lake Superior. According to the map, they aren’t supposed to be here year round.

    • Lucy on November 3, 2019 at 2:07 pm

      I have a pair of robins eating berries from my mountain ash as well. I live inSault Ste Marie Ontario at the point where Lake Superior connects to the St Marys River…we are twin cities with Sault Ste Marie Michigan!

  5. DStuart on October 30, 2019 at 9:33 am

    We woke up to see a bunch of Robins around our backyard and hanging around the birdbath, so nice

  6. Harriet Perez on October 1, 2019 at 9:02 am

    For the past two days I’ve seen several Robin using our birdbath. Usually not seeing them now but they must still be getting food in our part of Illinois

    • Ashley N. on October 19, 2019 at 9:57 am

      I just spotted 3 robins outside of my bedroom window. I live by Madison, WI. I haven’t seen others in weeks.

  7. Christi Sweet on September 3, 2019 at 2:47 pm

    Just wondering why I haven’t seen any robins in my yard for awhile. There are so many other birds that I didn’t realize it until a couple of days ago. I live in Northern Kentucky.

    • Laurie Goodhart on October 7, 2019 at 12:14 pm

      I’m in upstate NY and haven’t seen or heard them since early spring this year. Not normal at all. I have 8 acres with forest, wild fields, and mowed areas. They should be here in abundance, as they have been my whole life.

  8. Jim Budde on August 4, 2019 at 4:23 pm

    Thank you. Have been thinking of robins’ migratory patterns and learned a lot from your article

    • Martha Boesch on September 15, 2019 at 8:15 am

      Seeing Robin’s in SE Texas. Its mid September, 2019. Seems early in the season. Thanks.

      • Thomas Williams on September 30, 2019 at 8:13 am

        Seeing the here in Northern VA also!

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