Photo by Mary Holland

What to Feed Those Early Robins

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Henry Homeyer

Ask Henry!

It is well accepted that the early bird gets the worm. But what about those early robins that are here while all the worms are deep under the frozen tundra? Can we help them? You bet.

Although if you go on-line there are people who go to extremes to feed those foolish robins that arrive with snow on the ground. By Darwinian standards early robins might be due to starve. I read one report of a guy with an electrically heated dog dish. He puts soil in in with bait worms. Other people buy fresh strawberries and cut up apples for the robins and spread them on the ground. Nice thoughts, but unnecessary.

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In summer a robin’s diet normally includes fruits, insects and worms. And although they are known for eating worms, those only constitute about 15% of a robin’s diet. They are largely fruit eaters, so growing trees and shrubs with lingering fruit is the way to go.

Robins are feeding on sumacs now. Photo courtesy of Mary Holland

An important fruit for robins at this time of year is the sumac berry. Sumac is not a popular landscape tree, and I don’t recommend planting it. It spreads by sending out long roots that send up new shoots far from the mother tree. But it does show up along the roadside quite commonly – and it is a good tree there. It suffers through salt and exhaust when other things would give up, and will grow in really bad soil.   

Birds prefer berries that are high in calories – preferably fats, but sugars are good too. Some berries have lots of fats in the membranes surrounding the fruit and are eaten as soon as they are ripe. Blueberries, notoriously attract unwanted, thieving  birds. Others, like sumac, are largely carbohydrate and ignored until really needed.

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) berries are eaten immediately in late summer.

But at this time of year beggars can’t be choosers, and robins and other birds such  as bluebirds, cedar waxwings and blue jays strip off the sumac berries that have been present all winter. It’s possible that some of the complex carbohydrates have been converted to sugar by the cold. That happens in root crops like carrots, potatoes and parsnips.

What else has lingering berries? Hawthorns still have berries, and some crabapples and viburnums. Go outdoors and see what still has fruit in your neighbor’s yard. If you don’t recognize a bush or tree, ask!

These dried crab apples are good bird food now, too. Turkeys love them!

So come spring or summer, think about planting something for those robins and other hungry birds, fruit that will hold on until mud season. They need a boost as much as we do during the long mud season while snow lingers on.

What trees and shrubs are providing bird food now? Share with us, please. Enter your comments below. And feel free to ask questions me questions at

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