tampabay.com

Drunken robins bobbin' along

Not all are party animals, but a lot of them are here, and some are drunk off their feathers on berries.

By BILL VARIAN
Published January 26, 2005


TAMPA - Fun fact No. 1 about robins: They can't hold their berries. In early spring, they'll gorge on overripe mulberries, and get a little tipsy in the process.

Fun fact No. 2 (for people who appreciate birds, anyway): There's a ton of them flying around the Tampa Bay area right now.

"This is probably the largest invasion we've had in many years," said Joyce King, president of the Audubon Society chapter in St. Petersburg. "Often we'll have none in this area until they begin their migration north in March or April. It's rather a mystery."

A Hitchcockian mystery with a soundtrack that goes something like cheerily cheer-up cheerio, with the occasional, rapid-fire tut tut tut.

Biologists who watch birds in this area speculate that a harsher and wetter winter farther north - where robins are considered a sign of spring - is causing them to form a sort of temporary headquarters here. They may not be able to find so many worms or other soft insects, but they can at least feast on fruits and berries that are abundant in the Florida winter.

"My best guess is that some of the cold fronts we've had recently are pushing more of the birds further south, compared to some years when it's warmer here and it's warmer elsewhere," said Alex Kropp, a wildlife biologist for the southwest regional office of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Rich Paul, a wildlife biologist and former manager of the Audubon Society's Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuary, said birders have been spotting a few other species not so common this far south at this time of year. They include American goldfinches, pine siskins and cedar waxwings.

But robins have been particularly abundant in recent weeks, flocking bay area neighborhoods by the hundreds.

"Isn't it great?" said Norma Lopez-Bean, a master gardener who lives in Beach Park and has a half-dozen bird baths in her yard. "I woke up the other day, and I've never seen so many. There must have been hundreds.

"They're beautiful. I wish they'd stay."

The American robin - scientific name Turdus migratorius - ranges throughout the United States, including Alaska in summer, and parts of Canada. They are the state bird of Michigan, Wisconsin and Connecticut.

The red-breasted bird typically is found in Florida any time from October to April. Generally speaking, robins don't breed here, though there have been a few documented cases.

So if they appear a little plump now, that's not because they're pregnant or particularly well-fed. It's just gotten a little colder here than robins particularly like.

They prefer weather no colder than 34 degrees. So with temperatures dancing around the freezing point at night, the robins, like other birds, fluff out their feathers to trap warm air near their bodies, like a down jacket.

They don't necessarily flock to bird feeders, not being real seed eaters. Want them around? Try plopping a few raisins, or maybe some bread crumbs, on an open feeding station (as opposed to one of those cylindrical tubes). Otherwise, they're more likely to run about your lawn - not hopping like some other birds - stopping occasionally to look for bugs.

Robins are not quite welcome by all. Their taste for berries includes strawberries. In older, less politically correct days, farmers would pay children a penny a bird to shoot them, Paul said. Now they're more likely to employ border collies or other nonlethal methods of chasing them off.

In fact, robins are not particularly discriminating. They also like Brazilian pepper and carrot-wood berries, two invasive species they are blamed for helping to spread.

Also, they, along with cedar waxwings, occasionally dine on something a little overly ripe for their own good. They'll flock to mulberry bushes for their berries, as well as the bugs they tend to attract. In late winter or early spring, the berries can become intoxicating.

"Sometimes the birds will have one too many," Paul said. "They become a little looped. So it becomes fun to watch them."