Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Caroling Robins of December

Perhaps you thought that I wouldn’t have much to write about in late autumn and early winter.  Although I may include some blog posts about what I learned in the past field season and what I'm looking forward to studying next year, I'll always invite you to keep listening to nature around us. There may not be as much music in the natural world right now, but there are still interesting and beautiful things to hear as well as to see. 

For example: Robins. 

Robins? In early December? Yes. It’s been above freezing here in NE Ohio the past few days, and Robins have been singing. Although people tend to think of Robins as a sign of spring, they actually are common in winter here along the Ohio shoreline of Lake Erie. I love searching for these large – and often vocal – groups during this quieter time of the year. 

I live in a great place to find them, too. I teach in Cleveland’s University Circle area, which is just 3 miles south of Lake Erie and the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve. It is the home of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Institute of Art, two extremely large hospitals, and many additional arts and cultural institutions. All these locations have something that Robins love, too – lots of berry-laden ornamental trees! 

This Robin has been right outside my classroom window, and he’s been singing when he’s not busy gorging on berries and the hulled sunflower I scatter on my classroom window ledge each morning (and yes, Robins eat hulled sunflower seeds). 

In addition, 285-acre Lake View Cemetery is just to the east of the CWRU campus. Many large, old cemeteries are splendid destinations for winter Robins, and tree-filled Lake View is well known as a very good birding spot in the winter and spring. 

We all know the song of the American Robin. His short, repetitive little motives form longer phrases that are more easily identifiable by their rhythm than their exact pitches. The Robin outside my classroom has been singing some solos, and I’ve heard a few other Robins doing so as well. 

What you’re more likely to hear will be the cheerful cacophony of large autumn flocks. There’s lots of calling and occasional bursts of singing. Here’s a recording I made on November 30, 2008 of just a small section of a huge flock of Robins – hundreds of them – singing as rain began to fall on melting snow and wet leaves. 

This is what I’m hearing now, whether it’s in the old, inner-ring suburbs such as the one where I live, on the CWRU campus, outside the Cleveland Institute of Music, or at Lake View Cemetery. Defying the onset of winter with their bright, berry-colored chests, they sing and call as they feast in the hollies, crabapples and hawthorns. 

Yes, they are common birds, but the surprise and delight of a flock of December Robins is a wonderful gift as the days become so short and often so gray. I hope you have a chance to see and hear them this month! 


  1. Lisa, these pictures are just beautiful, and so perfectly capture the essence of Robin-ness! It's a wonder to hear the caroling at this dark time of year . . . you kind of expect to see crocus and daffodils. Was lucky enough to be in Lake View about ten days ago at the right time to hear/see a flock as you described, lunching fatly on berries and chasing each other from the various staked-out sections of their treasure trove. Delightful.

  2. Thank you! I just spotted a robin on my fence here in Western Washington and was very surprised!