Just how many robins spend winter in Chicago? A lot.

The iconic songbird isn't just a sign of spring. It can be found throughout the area all year long.

For the past week or so, an American Robin has been singing from the top of our neighbor’s honey locust. It really stands out, both because a singing robin in November is unusual and because this individual has a particularly musical song. So much so that this wanna-be mockingbird had me scrambling for an identification lest it be an out-of-place rarity.

This is the time of year when the question arises as to whether robins migrate. The old saw that robins are a harbinger of spring is a bit of a misnomer. Robins do seem to proliferate on lawns as the weather warms, making earthworms and grubs more available and their presence more visible. In the winter, they retreat to wooded areas and turn to a diet of berries. Some do indeed go farther south.

So, just how many robins do winter in northern Illinois? A few months ago I posed that question to Bob Fisher, former President of Illinois Ornithological Society. Bob's been birding in some winter robin hotspots for decades. On a winter day at places like Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve near Lemont, it’s common to see a few dozen robins to more than 100. I know this from personal experience at the Christmas Bird Count at Waterfall Glen, which is how I met Bob. I’ll let him take it from here.

“If you’re at Waterfall Glen, particularly on the west side of Sawmill Creek, there are some open areas there where the preserve borders the fence of Argonne [National Laboratory]. On a winter afternoon, maybe a half-hour before dusk and standing in an open area, you will see fairly large groups of robins heading toward the [Des Plaines] River.

“You could count 100 or 200 robins heading toward the river. The theory was that they were roosting in the trees along the river because that would be a microclimate and it would be warmer. They’d be going for berries [in upland areas], buckthorn and Amur honeysuckle.”

Bob points out robin counts of as many as 170 on dates in December, January and February.

So what of the robins that show up in March in large groups on almost any grassy patch, when the weather is just mild enough to thaw the soil? Well, those are a different population of migratory robins, coming to Chicago from points south. The Waterfall Glen robins are probably showing up in March at points north. The American Bird Conservancy has a nice summary of the diet, vocalization and migratory patterns.

In this case, there’s some truth to the anecdote that robins are a harbinger of spring. And why not? They can be right there in the same category with crocuses, forsythia and daffodils, even if some robins are from around here and some may not be.

As Bob says, “It can be difficult to tell what’s what and who’s who.”

So as we head into winter and wonder if we'll see much in the way of avian life, we can take a look for robins in our area woodlands and delight in their year-round presence.

Sizing up a possible Cook County Forest Preserve tax referendum

Last week the Forest Preserve District of Cook County floated the suggestion of a property tax referendum for the district in 2022. The district is in dire financial straits due to increasing pension obligations. It would like to acquire more property for the sake of preservation—up to 20,000 more acres, which would be about a 25% expansion, however it only has the resources to acquire about 100 acres right now. There also is a $100 million backlog of deferred maintenance and capital improvements.

A tax increase may equate to about $15 per year for a Cook County homeowner. It’s a small price to pay, but any requested tax increase is bound to receive heavy scrutiny. The key to passage will be making the case to those outside the inner circle of conservationists, birders and nature enthusiasts. Not everyone may recognize the benefits of the preserves, particularly city dwellers who mostly enjoy Chicago Park District property. Those calling for the referendum will need to be extremely transparent and specific when it comes to explaining how funds will be used. Even then, the overall political and economic climate in 2022 will be a factor and another remedy that the Forest Preserve pension system merge with the rest of county government.

Expanding the forest preserves would be a boon to Cook County avian life. The preserves harbor an array of endangered and threatened nesters as well as many uncommon migratory species. But an expansion cannot only rely on the hopes for a pandemic-burst of goodwill to the outdoors. If this goes forward, prepare for a bruising fight.

What are the chances Chicago's Christmas tree also hosts a Saw-whet Owl?

The news came across last week that a Northern Saw-whet Owl was a stowaway in a Christmas tree en route from upstate New York to Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. The story of the little raptor quickly made national news. A wildlife center took the owl in for protection and released it back to the wild on Wednesday.

Before you go peering at Chicago’s tree—or really any evergreen—looking for Saw-whet Owls, here are a few items to consider.

The big picture

Chicago’s Christmas tree has been in place at Millennium Park since Nov. 9. This is the first year that the tree has come from within the city limits, from the Morgan Park neighborhood on the Far South Side. Saw-whet Owls can turn up most anywhere in the northern United States in winter, and they may be more common in the Midwest than we realize. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that an owl could be in the Millennium Park tree. Owls have been known to hang out near Water Tower Place downtown.

Whether the type of tree matters

The New York owl, now nicknamed Rockefeller naturally, came from a Norway spruce. Chicago’s tree is a blue spruce, so there isn’t much of a difference there. Saw-whets often turn up in cedars, too. But there’s also a very high likelihood of not finding a saw-whet in a conifer, and they even prefer vegetation like buckthorn that pervades some parts of the Chicago area. Again, they can still be hard to observe due to their size and behavior.

Location, location, location

Rockefeller came from outside a general store in Oneonta rather than the vast tracts of woodland one might imagine in upstate New York. Morgan Park is a city neighborhood with a suburb-like feel. The two locations might have more in common than one would think. And there have been reports going back to the 19th century suggesting that Saw-whets have a propensity for visiting cities and towns.

What’s the data show?

This is an eBird map of recent sightings of Saw-whet Owls on the South Side of Chicago. Morgan Park is just a little north of Blue Island on the map. The markers show sightings older than 30 days. Some of these are from decades ago so this may not be the best gauge. Further, many sightings don’t get entered into eBird so as to protect owls from harassment. And surely many birds are being overlooked.

The verdict

It’s not altogether impossible that a Saw-whet Owl could end up in Chicago’s tree, but it’s just as unlikely as in New York—it’s what makes the story special. Though a bit fanciful, the thought of a Chicago owl possibly riding along on a Chicago tree to Millennium Park is one worth pondering.

TWiB Notes

In case you missed it, the above video of Sandhill Cranes at Indiana’s Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, was in Monday’s TWiB. The number of migrating cranes there has since grown, now 25,092 as of this Tuesday…After my piece on lakefront closures, Ross Petersen wrote to say that Wooded Island in Jackson Park remains open. Park at the lot at the intersection of Cornell Drive and Hayes Drive...A group of seven Black Scoters were hanging out most of this week at Lake Opeka in Des Plaines. It was an unusual place to see these sea ducks that prefer much larger lakes and rivers when they come south from Labrador in Canada.

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