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FEATHER TALK
AMERICAN ROBIN

Iím always saddened when I see a pile of feathers representing a dead bird. However, I understand how the food web operates in nature and know the prey as well as the predator need to eat regularly. These particular robin feathers, found at he Ogden Nature Center, are oriented in a strip from northwest to southeast and there is a breeze blowing in
the same direction. The accipiters, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, and Northern Goshawk, feed by sitting on an overhead limb and plucking the feathers from their prey, then eating the plucked bird. I look up and find the spot on a limb that was recently used as a table.

The breeze is cold, as it is in the middle of our winter season. On recent trips to the nature center, Iíve observed flocks of robins and, occasionally, one Cooperís Hawk. I suspect the Cooperís Hawk is now fueled up for a few more winter days. In my ornithology class I was told that robins are a migratory species. In decades past, we considered the American Robin a harbinger of spring, so why are flocks of robins spending the winter this far north? The answer comes from the fact that humans have altered the native habitats and provided robins with abundant winter food. Robins may eat earthworms during the summer months, but in the winter they are fruit eaters. Robins like Russian olives, crabapples, mountain ash, and many other berries. These plants we refer to as ornamentals, or even invasive weeds, allow robin populations the luxury of avoiding the long trip south each winter.

Letís talk about one of these non-native weed species, the Russian olive. Many conservation organizations are now busy trying to control or eliminate this species in favor of native tree and shrubs. For those who have birded with me, you know I like native species and often am critical of introductions. Youíve heard me talk in negative terms about phragmites (reed grass), or cheatgrass (also called June grass), or European Starlings, or many other invasive introductions. However, you donít hear me saying much against the Russian olive. Yes, it is an aggressive non-native, but in many cases, itís the best we have in human altered ecosystems. Iíve observed more species than I could list here, eating these high-energy berries, including Common Raven, Chukar, Ring-necked Pheasant, Sharp-tailed Grouse, American Robin, Evening Grosbeak, White-crowned Sparrow, California Quail, Black-billed Magpie, red fox, and coyote.

When I was studying the nutritional-energetics of Sharp-tailed Grouse, I found the Russian olive to be a very good winter food for these birds. Iíve even eaten a few berries myself. In addition to the berries, Russian olive trees hold their leaves late into the fall and provide cover and insects for late migrating warblers and other species. I know of a Russian olive grove out in the west desert that is home to three species of owls as well as many songbirds. Remember the year thousands of Painted Lady butterflies migrated through Utah? I visited a west desert oasis of Russian olive trees and observed hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Painted Lady butterflies feeding on the sweet nectar of the profusely blooming Russian olives. Wow!

Volumes have been written on the impacts of introduced species and the value of native species. I accept all of this information. However, realistically, many of the well-established non-native plants and animals are here to stay. We cannot eliminate them so letís learn to live with them and spend our time, energy, and money on higher goals of conservation. Russian olives provide much cover and food for many species of wildlife and seem to thrive in human impacted areas. So smile and enjoy looking for birds in this unique habitat type.

Well, I got sidetracked but you may still want an indication of how attached I am to American Robins. Iíve even referred to myself as a ROBIN (Retired Old Birder Invading Nature). Iíve also been know to intently study a bird in heavy cover trying to get clues for identification, then state, just a "dor" bird. In this case, "dor" is short for darned old robin. It isnít that I donít like robins, itís just that they are so common and Iím always looking for a rarer species.


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