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Fall's Journey South: November 3, 2000

Today's Report Includes:

Heading South? Maybe!

American Robin

Okay, robin watchers. Which is true?

A. The American Robin is a territorial bird. Males sing to declare their territorial boundaries. Both males and females aggressively defend their territories, keeping other robins at a distance. Sometimes robins even bash themselves against windows and car mirrors trying to chase off their own reflections.

B. The American Robin is a flocking bird that doesn't usually defend a territory. Hundreds of robins can join together in a single mountain ash or crabapple tree, feeding together and finding security in numbers.

Actually, BOTH are true, depending on the calendar. From about March through late July, robins are as widely spaced as they can be. Keeping distance from other robin gives parents the range to provide enough food for their babies. After the babies are raised, there's no reason to be territorial--and plenty of reasons to flock together. It's just like the old saying: Birds of a feather flock together. Think about why, and send us your answer to:

Challenge Question #8
"List some advantages birds would gain when they flock together rather than defending territories against one another."

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Feeding, Flocking, and Flying
Have you spied any robins recently? This time of year robins are feeding, flocking, and flying. They need extra calories right now, partly to fuel their migration and partly to store up enough fat to help them survive cold days ahead. They concentrate on berry bushes and trees, although on warm days some can still be spotted running on lawns searching for worms.

Migratory robins right now are crowding into fruit trees in the central states. But there are still many stragglers in the northern states and provinces too. Some of those stragglers will go no farther. They'll stay north for the winter. Meanwhile, how far south have those early-bird migrants traveled? Here's what one robin-watcher told us:

"I live in Marietta, Georgia (269 miles north of Florida, and about 12 miles north of Atlanta), and we just had over a hundred--and possibly many more--robins fly into one of our tall trees and roost. They would fly past it and then circle down. You could hear their twitters. Our resident Northern Mockingbird was having a fit that these invaders would stop over in his yard, and he repeatedly came as close as possible and sang every song he knew."
Marie La Salle" (mlasalle@mindspring.com)

Birdseed? No Thanks!
Did you ever wonder why it's hard to attract robins to a bird feeder? Because the vast majority of robins have simply never eaten at a feeder before, they lack the experience to know what feeders are for. And even the hungriest robin would never eat birdseed. During autumn, robins have so much natural food available that they don't need any supplements anyway. But robins overwintering in northern states and provinces are probably going to become more and more common. During winter, these birds really will benefit from feeders. (There are two reasons overwintering robins will probably become more common: Because the whole North American population of robins is increasing, and because on average, winters are becoming milder.)

Mealworms for Overwintering Robins
If overwintering robins won't eat birdseed, what can you offer at a feeder? The two things robins DO like are fruit and invertebrates, such as worms and insects. If robins happen to overwinter near you, you can offer them frozen or fresh fruit. Favorites are apple slices, raisins, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and cherries. Or you can offer them fresh insects. Insects in winter? Not to worry. Mealworms are the best choice, and they're easy to find. Mealworms aren't actually earthworms; they're the larvae of a plain black beetle. You can buy them at pet stores or through the World Wide Web. See:

The problem is that it's hard to get robins to notice frozen mealworms. The little wiggling movements they make while they're alive and warm enough are noticeable and enticing to robins. On warmish days, try putting some mealworms out in a deep plastic bowl near a birdbath. Mike Houle of La Crosse, Wisconsin, had robins coming to his yard all winter when it was very cold. He felt sorry for them, so he took the water out of his heated birdbath, filled it with sphagnum moss from a gardening store, and put a lot of mealworms in the sphagnum moss. When robins discovered the toasty-warm mealworms, they started pigging out! By following Mike's example, you can help the robins that remain in the north instead of taking the Journey South!

Mike Houle's Winter Robin Feeder

Preparing for Takeoff! Response to Challenge Question #7
The loons are migrating, and last time we asked: "Which group of loons--this year's young, their parents, or adult loons without young--do you think is ready to migrate first? Next? Last? Explain your reasoning."

Mrs. Nunnally's second graders in Bedford, NH were right when they said: "We think the adult loons without babies will migrate first. They don't have anyone to get ready. They only have to take care of themselves."

The second group to migrate are the adults that raised babies. Last to go are the young from this year. Mrs. Nunally's class had good reasoning when they guessed the baby loons would be second because "If something happened to them and no one is behind them, then no one would know to help them. Maybe their parents need to help them with swimmimg and flying." But the babies can survive without their parents. Once they get the hang of fishing, the young are actually better off if their parents go. This leaves plenty of fish for the babies on their nesting lake. Fortunately, the baby loons have a powerful instinct that tells them when and where to migrate. When they're ready to leave, they'll be well fed for the start of their first Journey South.

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Question:

1. Address an e-mail message to: jn-challenge-fall@learner.org

2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #8.

3. In the body of the message, answer the Challenge Question.

The FINAL Journey South Update Will Be Posted on November 17, 2000.

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