What to feed robins in the winter

  • Article by: VAL CUNNINGHAM , Contributing Writer
  • Updated: February 28, 2012 - 2:08 PM
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Winter robins are always eager for a drink of water, whether in lake, stream or birdbath.

Photo: Val Cunningham, Special to the Star Tribune

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Q What can I feed robins in the winter? I saw a group of six of them this morning and there were no berries around, so I'm wondering what they're eating.

A Feeding robins can be a bit of a challenge, since they're not "feeder birds" -- they don't generally check out seed-oriented feeding stations. They feed on insects and worms in the summer, then switch to fruit for winter.

A platform feeder offering several kinds of foods might catch their eyes. Dried fruits such as raisins, cranberries and currants are similar to wild fruits. Robins might also try small pieces of suet, either raw or crumbled from a suet cake. If you're feeling very hospitable, you could invest in mealworms from a bait store or wild bird supply store. A heated birdbath should be a major draw to this always-thirsty species.

Holding tight

Q My son found a feather on the ground and it got him wondering how they stay attached to birds.

A That's a good question. Feathers grow out of a bird's skin follicles, similar to the way our hair does. Each feather is held fast to the bird by clusters of tiny muscles around the follicle. When it's time to molt new feathers, which occurs once a year for many birds, the muscles release and a new feather pushes out the old. Your son might also be interested to learn that feathers don't grow thickly all over a bird's body, but instead are usually found along lines called feather tracts. Feathers overlap between the tracts to keep a bird's skin warm and dry.

Adding color?

Q Is there something I can put in my homemade suet to help the cardinals keep their bright color in winter?

A You could add dried fruits, such as chopped dried cranberries and/or raisins to your suet mixture, but this isn't really necessary. Cardinals absorb pigments from the foods they eat in summer to produce new, bright feathers during their fall molt.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who leads bird hikes for the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.

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