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Editorial: Sign of spring? Or something else?

It’s not easy to tell with a black-and-white image, but these are a flock of robins perching in two trees outside the Kinnic Health and Rehab nursing home recently. (Submitted photo)

At first Patti Miller had to rub her eyes. The social services director at Kinnic Heath and Rehab on East Division Street had walked outside last week in single-digit cold. She was greeted by the sight of fluffed-up, chirping robins lining the branches of two trees next to nursing home.

“At first I thought, ‘What are all those birds?’” she said. “Then I saw the red breast and knew. Then I thought, ‘Oh, you poor things. You’ve made a terrible mistake.’”

The ‘poor things’ clung to the trees for a couple of days. A few excited nursing home residents came out for a peek. The robins flew away over the weekend. But are they following Miller?

Tuesday morning, with the temperature 22 below, she spotted robins in a maple tree outside her home on River Hills Drive. “What is going on?” she asked. “I’ve never seen robins this early or in this kind of weather.”

Some people define the start of spring as the first day they see a robin. They are often seen any time in March, even early April if winter is harsh and prolonged.

The winter of 2013-14 has been called the coldest in more than three decades. So what tempted robins to appear a good month ahead of schedule.

According to UW-River Falls Prof. Mark Bergland, chairman of the Biology Department, “climate change” plays a role. He said many bird species, robins included, have increased their range northwards. Robins only go as far south as they have to.

“I’ve been at UWRF for 35-plus years, and do not remember so many reports of overwintering robins as I’ve had in recent years,” Bergland said.

The biology professor also said robins are heartier than people imagine and eat more than worms: “Ornamental plantings associated with cities and towns offer a food supply in the winter…I’ve had regular reports of robins overwintering in this area over the years, especially in Hudson near the river.

“Three weeks ago my wife saw some robins near our house, halfway between River Falls and Prescott, in some evergreens, and we have lots of berry-producing bushes in the area.

“Robins are omnivorous, but eat mainly fruits and berries, and if they have a good supply available they can tolerate extreme cold…Bird feathers are amazingly good at trapping heat, as anyone with a down parka can attest.”

Bergland adds that people who see robins now should watch what they eat to get a better idea of the kinds of winter food that are helping them to survive.

And then there’s this: Starting Wednesday temperatures are forecast to rise sharply, even nearing the freezing mark. Are robin sightings, while a bit premature, the spring signal our hibernating population is longing for?

“Maybe they’ve brought good luck,” Miller said. “Seeing them lifts your spirits. It’s like, oh my gosh, there is hope for spring after all. It’s on the way.”

From an editorial point of view, we couldn’t have said it better.