Do Robins Stay the Winter in Southern Ontario?

For many Canadians, spring begins the first time they see a robin or hear one singing “chip chip cheerio, jam on toast!” from their rooftop or their tree. Here in the deep south of Ontario, however, you might see that familiar flash of rusty-red or hear that quarrelsome twitter of a bird chasing away a competitor even in the bleakness of January. Do Robins stay the winter here?

Yes!

Photo of Robin Male Brown Eyes on NaturalCrooksDotCom

Did you know robins have brown eyes? Me neither.

In fact, there are probably several thousand robins that over-winter in the Toronto area. They seem to manage in two ways.

Flock for Safety, Defend for December

Many, perhaps most, of the robins form flocks. They live in sheltered spots in parks and Toronto’s famous ravines. Moving as a group, they search for fruit trees including ornamental crabapple trees and rowan or mountain ash trees from which to feed. With the ground frozen the supply of earthworms and other insects is unavailable.

Others, like our valiant male robin, stay on territory all winter. Our robin perches day (and possibly night) in our ornamental crab tree. (Yes, the same tree the Red Breasted Nuthatches are considering nesting in this spring.) He lives mostly off the fruit from the tree.

Photo of Robin Winter Crab Ontario on NaturalCrooksDotCom

(This is one of the invaders, not our robin.)

Occasionally, a flock of robins will arrive intending to strip his tree of fruit. Single-wingedly, he will try to drive them away. Diving aggressively at bird after bird, he will fly for 10 to 15 minutes before he pauses for a rest. Only the birds feeding in the tree face his wrath. Those eating dropped crabapples off the ground are left unchallenged.

I’ve been known to help a bit because I feel so sympathetic to his desperation. If I go stand near the tree, the visiting robins will take wing. My male, however, is very comfortable with us coming and going beneath him, and he will sit in the tree, watching in what I think might be relief.

Isn’t Over-wintering Risky for Robins

The vigour with which our male defends his one reliable source of food is a sign of just how risky it is to over winter in Ontario. Without a steady supply of food, the robins will lack the ability to stay warm during the cold winter nights of January and February. Fruit is also not particularly high in energy, so the robins must eat a lot of it.

Migration itself, though, is also high risk. It’s estimated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that 20-30 percent of hatch year migrating birds die on the trip.

Photo of Robin Male April on NaturalCrooksDotCom

Another obvious advantage is that when spring does arrive, the birds that stayed here will be first to choose their territories, find mates, and start a brood. For a bird like a robin that nests several times during the spring, summer and early fall, even a week’s head start gives it a chance to produce more healthy offspring than a competitor.

Why Don’t They Visit My Feeder?

Unlike most of our winter birds, robins do not apparently eat seeds. The black oil sunflower seeds that provide such nutritious bursts of fat and protein to the chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers are not of interest to the robins.

I’ve often wondered if I put out a tray of meal worms, though, whether the robin would feast on them. Maybe some day I’ll experiment.

Winter Resident or Spring Arrival Robins are Warmly Welcomed

Whether they stayed the winter or not, the sight of robins busily hunting in the lawns, or running rapidly ahead of us, never realizing if they ran to the side they’d be safe and could stop running, is welcome. Their cheerful colouring and ambitious if unmusical songs brighten many a gloomy April morning.


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Do you have a resident robin? Or do you mark the official start of spring on the day when the robins first arrive back in your neighbourhood? Please share your experiences with a comment.

61 thoughts on “Do Robins Stay the Winter in Southern Ontario?

  1. Yesterday I counted 15 robins in the tree at the back of my home. They were there for about 1’2 hour and then left. What a beautiful site in the fresh snow.

      • I watched a Robin in my crab apple tree for a couple of days. Then we got an ice storm. The next day the robin desperately tried to get the coated berries but couldn’t. I took some berries off the tree and left them on the ground. It came back and managed to eat some. I was amazed how many it wanted to eat. It was a cold night. Today no sign of the robins or other birds, cardinal and sparrows .

        • Hopefully your Robin found somewhere to shelter and will show up again soon. It was great of you to help it to feed! Thanks for sharing your sighting.

      • Our robin ate peanuts out of shell broken up a bit. As we feed squirrels and birds of any kind, the robin hung around as well in winter weather which we were surprised to see.

        • Neat! I’ve never heard of them eating peanuts before but it sounds like it helped your robin get thorugh the winter. Thanks for sharing your sighting — and helping it!

      • How nice! I’m sure it will eat any leftover grapes it can find. Our determined male robin is still sitting guarding his crabapple tree from any other robins. He’s been finding this a hard winter but there is still fruit on the tree for him to eat.

  2. Feb 02/14 I saw a Robin this morning while cleaning my drive in Lindsay On. about an hour north of Toronto . Have never seen in Feb. before.

    • It is startling to see a robin in the snow! Maybe there are some new winter food supplies in your neighbourhood (maybe someone left hips on their roses; planted an ornamental crabapple; is now growing grapevines; has left a crop of bittersweet nightshade berries, etc.) If so, this may be the first year of many when you’ll see a robin or two determinedly hanging on.

      Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  3. We saw a flock of around 6 robins today in Mississauga digging in the snow to get at some holly berries
    Very odd sight!

    • Sounds like those ones will likely make it through the winter! I saw a few today up at Riverwood Conservancy. There was one patch of exposed soft mud and 3 robins busily checking it out before moving on to a crabapple tree.

  4. This morning I discovered a flock of robins feasting on fallen apples near a vineyard in Beamsville. I went back this afternoon and found them in another location. they didn’t seem to mind. It was if they expected me to feed them. I live 2 miles away and have feeders for other birds. Maybe robins would enjoy spoiled fruit

    • So far I’ve never found anything that Robins will eat at a feeder, although every bird is different! During the ice storm, I did get “our” robin (who lives in our crabapple tree all winter) to eat a few dried cranberries that I scattered on the ground under the tree. They looked like the ornamental crabapples which he couldn’t get at because they were encased in ice.

      I’m glad to hear your flock has survived, too. Hopefully in a few weeks they’ll be able to get at the earthworms again.

  5. This morning (November 15) I’ve seen at least 6 robins in my back garden, eating the crabapples etc. Is it too late for them to migrate south?

    • No, there are many robins still migrating. The “hawk watch” sites near the US border are reporting dozens to hundreds a day moving through. Many robins, though, will try to over-winter if they can find enough fruit sources to feed themselves. They like the small crabapples, buckthorn and sea buckthorn berries, wild grapes, and many other small fruits. Even nightshade berries.

      In winter, many of them stay as a group moving from tree to tree rather than staying in one place and defending a territory. In Toronto, for instance, there are often flocks that over-winter in the ravines, then move up into the lawns of homes in the spring when the ground thaws.

      Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  6. I have never seen Robins in January in all of my life, but this year, I have seen at least a dozen in a neighbors dried fruit tree.

    • I hope they can hang on another few months. The fruit tree will definitely help as robins can survive some pretty cold temperatures so long as they can find enough to eat.

      Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  7. I forgot to say that I live in Northern New Brunswick Canada. We have very harsh winters with 3 to 4 feet of snow and temperatures dipping to – 27 Celsius.

  8. We had at least a dozen robins at our birdbath yesterday taking turns all day getting a drink. I assume they must have just arrived as they were really thirsty. The Great Lakes are 90% frozen so if they came from the states they probably couldn’t find any open water. We live in Bolton, Ontario which is about 45 min from Toronto. The date is Feb. 25, 2015.

    • It’s wonderful that you are offering the birds a source of clean, fresh water. In a winter like this, that’s very difficult for them to find. And as you know, melting snow inside your body to make water takes more water out of you than it puts in. The water along road sides is very salty and again does not really help the birds that drink it.

      It’s more likely that these robins are some of the over-wintering birds as the migrating robins don’t usually come back this early. (especially when they encounter snow along their route back.) You have probably saved the lives of several of them!

      Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  9. I opened the drapes of our bedroom this morning and there were about a dozen or more robins . Some in our trees and in our bird bath. I am still amazed, There were some in the trees on our front yard as well! !!,,, Honestly, I thought it was Spring again. Why haven’t they gone South??? I always welcomed them in the Spring. What is happening? ?
    Nov. O5 2015.

    • Depending on where you live, they may be on their way south or they may be planning to over-winter. Although most robins migrate, there are hundreds that don’t if there are enough fruit trees and bushes to feed themselves from during the winter. For instance, there are large flocks that live during the winter in the ravines in Toronto and the river valleys in Mississauga. They will visit back yards, too, to eat the very small crabapples that are on the decorative crabapple trees, and mountain ash and dogwood berries. They also eat nightshade berries. If there are still insects available, which there are in most of southern Ontario still, they will also eat those. They like earthworms, but they eat many other things as well.

      So I would enjoy your visiting flock and not worry too much. They are either working their way south or they are on the move locally to ensure they can find enough to eat during the winter.

      Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  10. For the past two weeks I’ve been seeing Robins in the Golf course, South of Eglinton on Wynford Drive. Lots of crab apple trees there.

    • They’ll certainly eat the fruit when they need it. It’s been such an odd autumn they may still be able to get ground insects, too. There’s actually been several Bluebirds still seen in the GTA which are getting very late.
      Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  11. Just saw a mature robin in the backyard in Thornhill on the after our first snow fall. He came to our bird feeder but didn’t eat anything. What could we do to help him/them winter-over?

    • Robins will usually move around the neighbourhood at this time of year looking for fruit including very small crabapples, nightshade berries, multiflora rose hips, sumac berries, etc. They usually will not eat fruit from the ground or from a tray feeder. They will come to get water, though, if there is a pool in a dish or a bird bath. In the winter, Robins don’t defend their territories. Instead they move freely from tree to tree, and often even end up in large flocks in the river valleys.

      So aside from some water, I don’t think there is much help you can offer your robin but I don’t think you need to worry too much either, as it will probably find food nearby.

      Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  12. This morning in North Burlington, Ontario, a flock of between 15 and 20 Robins spent about an hour in my daughter’s backyard just as the sun was coming up. They were there for about an hour. They were beautiful.

    • What a wonderful sight! With luck, spring will arrive early this year and all these brave robins that stayed will get an early start on raising their chicks. Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  13. We live in Stouffville and I just had 2 Robins come for a visit in our yard. I saw this flash of orange and thought I was seeing things. Such a wonderful sight but surprising nonetheless.

    • I suspect more have stayed over this winter than usually do given the number of sightings I’ve heard of and the number of birds I’ve seen. Their bright colour is welcome when the trees and shrubs seem so bare and drab. Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  14. Never have seen a robin in mid winter here in Sault Ste Marie but a mature male has been hanging around our backyard feeders for the last week.
    Doesn’t seem to care about the various seeds and suet we have out but he guards a crab apple tree that we left the fruit on as an experiment. We think he may be eating mountain ash berries too and there are at least six of these in the immediate area.

    • Yes, they’ll eat both crabapples and mountain ash if they can get them. They’ll also eat dogwood berries and nightshade berries. They really aren’t much for eating suet and they won’t seem to eat fruit that has fallen on the ground so it doesn’t seem to work to put out, say, chopped apple, raisins or craisins. With a bit of luck this winter will stay mild and he’ll make it. Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  15. This is the earliest I have seen and heard them back in Angus, just west of Barrie,ontario…….saw and heard them yesterday……..hope winter doesn’t return…also, hearing a lot of geese at night, so hopefully winter is gone.
    ElinorSmith

    • Yes, some of the deep-south migrant robins are back already. Others are ones that over-wintered just a bit south of you and are now moving back up. They are pretty hardy birds so if there is still some fruit on the trees and bushes around you, they should be able to weather a few short cold snaps.

      The Tundra Swans are on the move too. Many flocks have been seen lifting off Lake Ontario and heading north. I sure hope Spring is officially here, too.

      Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  16. I live in an apt and it backs onto a small bush of suemack trees and the robin love the berries on the trees

  17. I was shoveling the snow off the car this morning when a bird flew overhead. Something told me it was strange and I looked up to see it on our neighbour’s mountain ash tree and then later in our carport. I had never seen a robin in winter before and when I googled it, this site came up. Hopefully it has somewhere warm to survive. I live in Kitchener, west of Toronto.

    • If there are mountain ash and small fruit crabapples around the robin will probably do fine. A large number manage to over-winter in southern Ontario each year if they can get at some fruit. Thanks for sharing your sighting on this snowy almost-winter day!

  18. Dec.19. 2016 – I sighted a single robin on our woodland property in Manotick (Ottawa) ON. it was singing its heart out while perched at the top of a very old, tall sumach. Temperatures the night before had plummeted to -24C rising to -14C in that morning. I was shocked it hadn’t migrated. We have wild grape vines, mountain ash, crab apple & a small apple tree on our acre and a quarter….haven’t heard it recently but then haven’t been home during the day…any suggestions on what to do if I hear it again? Have been putting out seed for the wild birds and ducks in our area but realize robins don’t eat seeds. Like the idea of raisins but how do I keep the other animals from eating them if the robins don’t like feeders? Welcome all ideas!

    • Given the number of fruit sources in and around your property, the Robin is fine for food. It often comes down to luck which ones make it through the winter, but hopefully your bird will find some shelter and hang on. Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  19. Hi saw about 6 robins today in our ornamental crab apple tree. So nice to see them. Temperature was around zero so not too cold for them to come out.

    • There have been some record high numbers of Robins counted at locations around southern Ontario during the December winter counts. Hopefully many of them will survive to nest in the spring. Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  20. It’s December 31, 2016 and I am sitting in my daughter’s living room in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario looking out the window as hundreds of robins fly over. I’ve never seen so many robins in my life! What a great way to end 2016 and a great start to 2017. Happy New Year!

  21. Saw my first Robin, Highland and Sterling, Kitchener 9:30 am Feb 11 2017, always a welcome sight

    • I hope you don’t have too much snow today. Luckily, robins will eat fruit such as small crabapples straight from the trees, so if you do have drifts, it may be ok. Thanks for sharing your sighting!

  22. Had 15 robins in a tree in our yard today, what a surprise. They stayed around at the front and back of the house for about 3 hours and then disappeared. So nice to see them but after a 10″ snowfall the day before there wasn’t much food for them.

  23. We have a cedar hedge in our yard in rural Peterborough and the robins have been staying all winter for the last few years lining in the hedge. We also have crabapple trees and as I write this I have the great pleasure of watching about 15 robins eating the dried crab apples. One even boldly came up to our patio door no less than six feet away from where I am sitting and looked straight in the house. Truly one of God’s great creations! 😌

  24. This is the first year we have ever seen a “flock” of robins in our backyard tree, which started mid February. We do share a tree with our neighbours which has small berries and is one of their flocking areas. We have been putting out a small apple near the feeder and they will eat that. However, they do not like the apple skin. lol
    Peterborough, On

  25. I was looking outside my back window for the return of my resident robins, Sally and George. Sally nested 3 times last spring in a nest they built right outside my back window in between the water drain pipe and the roof. I took a look outside the front window and there George was. He has a distinctive gait and the way his feathers ruffle on the top of his head gave him away. Just looking for Sally now…I am really excited about their return this spring! It’s always so funny the way Sally chases George away when I come around. He often does what I call a “fly-by” when I go out onto the patio….he’ll fly directly towards me and turn sharply before he gets too close in hopes of scaring me away, of course. But Sally chases him off the property when she sees me, she knows I mean no harm to their little fledglings! She even flies right up to the nest to feed her young when I’m standing right there. It’s such a lovely experience to have!

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