Robin, Eagle and Cardinal Migration

Why are robins one of the first birds seen in spring, while eagles are usually seen in winter and cardinals all-year-round?

With spring right around the corner, we’re all eager to see and hear the birds that give the Wisconsin woods, prairies and lakes life. Robins have been coined the first bird to arrive and serve as an indication that spring has begun, but why are robins one of the first birds to arrive?

And then there are eagles. If you have ever gone eagle watching in southern Wisconsin, you may know that one of the best times to see an eagle is during the winter – especially where there is open water. But why do eagles appear to migrate here during the winter months instead of going further down south where it’s nice and warm?

So, robins in the spring, eagles in the winter, and cardinals…all-year-round? How do they survive the unbearably cold Wisconsin winters? Why don’t they travel somewhere that may have more food, or, at least, a bit more tolerable climate?

American Robins:

When you see a robin, what is it usually doing? When I spot a robin, they’re usually hopping around in the grass, alone, searching for a juicy worm. If you get too close, they’ll fly away and let out a few chirps in excitement. If they aren’t on the ground, they’re often in a tree, making themselves obvious to anyone who cares to listen. These behaviors make robins easy to notice during the spring and summer months. But what the heck are they up to in the winter? You may be thinking, they’re soaking up the sun in some southern state; however, they may be closer to home than you realize.


American Robins don’t migrate too far from home during the winter months. In fact, they may even be just a few miles away. (Photo courtesy of the National Audubon Society)

During winter, instead of flying long distances to a warm paradise, as some may visualize, American Robins form large groups and go into the forest, or anywhere there is a food source, to eat berries such as hackberries or buckthorn berries. So, robins may be harder to see during the winter since they are usually high in a tree rather than down on the ground looking for insects and worms. Also, they aren’t calling for mates during the colder months, so their quiet demeanor makes them less obvious to the passerby.


Most American Robins in Wisconsin are here all-year-round. Only the northern portion of Wisconsin have robins that may migrate a little further south to look for food sources during the winter months. (Photo courtesy of the National Audubon Society)

To answer the question of why robins are one of the first birds you see during the spring – it’s because they were here all along! Or, they had a very short distance to travel to find their morning worm in the newly-thawed ground.

Bald Eagles:

Bald Eagles seem to be on the opposite spectrum of robins – we tend to see more eagles during the winter months versus the summer here in southern Wisconsin. With robins in Wisconsin, we learned that even though we don’t see them during the winter, they are still nearby. Does that mean eagles are in southern Wisconsin all the time and we just don’t notice them during the summer?


Since Bald Eagles’ primary food source is fish, they are usually seen near rivers during the winter. (Photo courtesy Wildscreen)

Bald Eagles will only migrate if they need to. The determining factor of whether an eagle will migrate or not is if there is a food supply nearby. For eagles in Florida, or any other warmer state, they don’t migrate to follow a food source or to breed since they have a stable food source in one location all-year-round. Eagles in Florida also breed during winter to avoid the scorching hot summers. Eagles in Wisconsin, however, need to travel to find food during the winter and return to their nesting sites to breed during the warmer months.


Most of the eagles that we see during the winter in southern Wisconsin travel north to breed. (Photo courtesy of North Dakota Birds, Birding and Nature).

So, we see more eagles during the winter since they travel together in large groups to find food. Since their favorite thing to eat are fish, they are often seen alongside unfrozen waterways. Lucky for us, this makes eagle watching in the winter pretty easy and interesting, since there is usually a convocation (group of eagles) and, if you’re lucky, you may even get to see them catch a fish!

Northern Cardinals:

It’s true that cardinals do not migrate. In fact, they usually stay within a one-and-a-half-mile radius from where they were born. What’s interesting is cardinals were originally only found in warmer locations, including the U.S. southeast, and have only recently started to expand their range to northern states, including Wisconsin. One possible reason for this expansion is the presence of winter bird feeders.


With cardinals being one of the first birds Wisconsinites think of when they think of birds that stick out the cold winters here, it’s hard to believe that cardinals actually originated from southern states and have only recently expanded north. (Photo courtesy of Gardener’s Path)

Cardinals can stay in one place their whole life because seeds are their primary food source, which is an easy-to-find food since many people have a bird feeder in their yard. Since the cardinals are right there in your backyard, and cardinals are a beautiful bright red, they’re easy to spot. But if robins are still around during the winter, why don’t you see them at the bird feeder? As mentioned, robins’ primarily eat berries during the winter, so a bird feeder full of seeds won’t attract robins to your yard.


As you can see by the pink color in the map above, Northern Cardinals are permanent residents in every location throughout Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. (Photo courtesy of The Cardinal Experience)

How You Can Help:

Since we’ve learned that robins, eagles and cardinals are all here during the winter, what can you do to make their survival more likely? For robins, you can try having chopped apples, berries and mealworms available in a bird feeder that will be easy for them to access.


To increase your chances of seeing a robin this winter, try offering chopped apples, berries and mealworms in a heavy, shallow dish. (Photo credit Home and Garden News and Blogs)

It may seem like there is nothing you can do this winter to support bald eagles, since it would be a challenge to provide fish in your backyard; however, there are plenty of ways you can support eagles. You could donate to the DNR or symbolically adopt a bald eagle nest to help fund conservation efforts. Another way you can show your support for eagles is to attend an eagle watching event. Although the eagle watching events have already passed in Sauk Prairie, Fox River and Prairie du Chien, there is an eagle watching event this Saturday in Ferryville, WI.


Since adult eagles come back to the same sites every winter, you could make it a family tradition to greet the eagles every winter! (Photo courtesy of Visit Ferryville)

Cardinals are the easiest bird to help this winter, and you may already be doing your part if you have a bird feeder. If you really want to make a cardinal’s day, be sure that the seeds in your bird feeder include black-oil Sunflower seeds and Safflower seeds. Another way you could help cardinals this winter is by having a heated birdbath so that they, and other birds, have water to drink.


Although cardinals, and other birds, may not be interested in taking a bath during the winter, they still appreciate a birdbath during the winter as a source of drinking water. (Photo courtesy of How To Spy On Birds)

Field Studies at the ALNC and Edna Taylor Conservation Park

AP Environmental Science Class

Did you know high school students have been investigating important environmental questions at both the ALNC and Edna Taylor Conservation Park?  La Follette High School students in the AP Environmental Science class have been conducting field studies in these local habitats for the past 5 years.  This year La Follette Biology 2 students also got in on the action.

The Instructional Purpose of the AP Environmental Science class projects was, “through presentations and discussion, students will demonstrate knowledge of ecological concepts and field data analysis.”  Students spent the semester looking at water quality and biodiversity data in different ways.


  • The students researched and analyzed study plots across Edna Taylor and ALNC and developed research questions of their own choosing.
  • The students developed research questions, immersed themselves into learning about the topic, studied and used various methods for data collection (i.e. bird ID, insect sweeps, Google Mapping tools, dissolved oxygen measures, biotic index, pH), determined results and conclusions, developed abstracts, and relayed findings through posters and presentations.
  • They factored in a variety of interesting variables, including differences in restoration measures and practices of ALNC vs. Edna Taylor, and impacts of urbanization (proximity to homes and neighborhoods, runoff, pesticide usage, pollution, etc.).
  • They analyzed biodiversity by studying: varieties and native vs. non-native plants, species of birds, and orders of insects.

In addition to learning about the process of scientific inquiry and investigation, the students noticed some interesting conclusions:

  • Different findings between ALNC and Edna Taylor – edge effect, different rates of biodiversity
  • Fewer invasive plants at ALNC than ET = Increased biodiversity in insects at ALNC
  • Most common bird sightings were Redwing Blackbirds, American Robins, Cowbirds, and Canada Geese, but a few interesting less common sightings:
    • Scarlet Tanager
    • Baltimore Oriole
    • Rose-breasted Grosbeaks
    • Hooded Mergansers
    • Sandhill Cranes

Several students mentioned increased understanding of and concern for environmental issues (like invasive species, pollution, and biodiversity) and plans to continue studying science.

Check out the movies made by the Biology 2 class: Plot 3Plot 4Plot 7Plot 8

TerraCycle: Expanding Recycling Options at the ALNC

The Aldo Leopold Nature Center naturalists, staff, and interns can now recycle more items than ever before – saving them from ending up in the landfill.  Thanks to a partnership with Winnequah Elementary School’s TerraCycle program, items that are not typically recyclable, such as foil chip bags, juice pouches, cereal bags, pens and markers, will be collected at the ALNC before being picked up by Winnequah volunteers.  The items are then sorted and shipped free of charge to TerraCycle to be repurposed or upcycled. In addition to keeping waste out of the landfill, Winnequah Elementary’s recycling efforts also earn them a small amount of money from TerraCycle.

Terracycle imageSustainability and stewardship of the land are serious business at the ALNC.   Extending recycling options by joining the TerraCycle program is one of the latest examples of this ongoing commitment.  Recognized as 2014  Sustain Dane MPower Business Champions and InBusiness Magazine 2014 Sustainable Small Business of the Year, the Aldo Leopold Nature Center continues to integrate more and more ways of sustainable living.

While the TerraCycle collection at ALNC is currently only for naturalists, staff, interns, and our summer camp program attendees, there are several collection points in Monona that are open to the public: the Monona Public Library, City Hall (Employee break room), and Cousin’s Subs.

Items that are recyclable through Winnequah School’s TerraCycle program:
- Wrappers from granola/sports/energy/meal replacement bars. (No wrappers from candy, cereal bars, or any other sweet snacks/bars.)*
- Bags from potato chips, pretzels, tortilla chips, cheese snacks. Any size.
- Entenmann’s Brand Little Bites® pouches.
- Aluminum and plastic juice/drink pouches (No juice boxes).
- Plastic pouches, caps from squeezable fruit/veggie snacks (ex: Go-Go Squeez).
- Plastic pens, mechanical pencils, markers, highlighters, and caps.
- Lunch kit packaging, plastic film, outer wrap, plastic trays. (ex: Lunchables)
- Toothpaste tubes, caps, brushes, dental floss cases.
- Cosmetics, hair care, and skin care packaging.
- Brita® and PUR® brand water filter systems, bottles, dispensers.
- Plastic bulk cereal bags, plastic cereal box liners. (No cereal boxes).
- Baby care packaging – soft plastic outer wrap from diapers, wipes.

This Week at the Little Free Library!

IMG_2414Try a pond or lake dip, a favorite activity at the ALNC, at home with this guide all about the creatures you can find in an aquatic environment. All you need is a natural water source, small net, plastic tupperware, and Wonderful, Wacky, Water Critters! Created in partnership by UW-Extension and the DNR, this guide describes some of the common critters you may find. Take a book, leave a book, and read on!

Thank You to our Spring Badger Volunteers!

Working with Volunteer Land Stewards has always been an important part of Aldo Leopold Nature Center’s programming, enabling us to share land stewardship practices with our community and complete important land restoration work. The Badger Volunteers program through University of Wisconsin Madison’s Morgridge Institute is a perfect fit for ALNC. Every semester, ALNC has a chance to meet a new crew of enthusiastic UW students and introduce them to our programs, habitats and nature trails. Badger Volunteers is a semester-long program pairing student teams of 1-4 students with community organizations to volunteer each week, building connections between partner organizations and students over the course of the semester.

BVs planting trees rs The nature center has worked with Badger Volunteer teams for several semesters now on projects varying from tree trimming and planting, trail restoration, and tending our phenology garden. This semester, a great group of students – Gbemi, Madi, Taylor and Becky – joined our Facility & Grounds Manager, Josh to lend helping hands on all these projects and more. With majors ranging from Microbiology to Communication Sciences, the students were interested in educational and land restoration aspects of ALNC’s work. Taylor said a highlight of the semester for the BV team was the annual controlled burn in the prairie, which took place one of the March Fridays they were onsite. Observating and helping out our trained burn captains was a great hands-on way to experience land restoration up close, and seeing the results – the prairie greening up in the weeks following the burn – was an added bonus!

IMG_6522 rs

The BV team also worked hard during their visits on removing invasive species and planting trees. Becky told us, “”volunteering here is a great, relaxing way to be off campus for a little while, hear a ton of birds, and enjoy nature.” We’re so glad to be a part of the Badger Volunteers partnership, and so thankful to the BVs and all of our volunteers, interns and supporters! Learn more about volunteer opportunities on the website here.

This Week at the Little Free Library!

IMG_2402_compressedWhat is nature to you? Compiled by Lorraine Anderson, Sisters of the Earth showcases the words of many female writers, including Emily Dickinson, Alice Walker, and Terry Tempest Williams, on this broad subject. Through journals, poems, essays, and stories, these women describe the natural world as they see it. Take a book, leave a book, and read on!

This Week at the Little Free Library!

IMG_2556This week’s book takes us to the savannas of East Africa. Follow through the eyes of an elephant calf as his herd searches for water and forages for food. What kind of fascinating animals will they run into?
Find out in Schuyler Bull’s Through Tsavo: A Story of an East African Savanna. Take a book, leave a book, and read on!

Stepping back in time with Juliette Kinzie at ALNC’s Vacation Day Program

This spring brought many wonderful programs to the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, and the Spring Vacation Day programs were a special highlight.  Every year during the spring breaks for the Madison area school districts, ALNC holds all-day programs for students ages 5-12, where they explore a range of science and nature topics, observe the spring habitats, and learn from ALNC’s experienced team of naturalists.

Pioneer Laundry 1

One of the most popular programs every year is our history-themed program, Pioneer Days.  During this fun-filled day, students step back in time to learn what it was like to live as a pioneer in Wisconsin.  Wearing bonnets, hats and skirts as pioneers might have worn, program participants lived life as pioneers, churning butter, grinding grain, washing laundry by hand, and even hauling water from the pond!  Of course, there was plenty of fun to be had as well; students spend the afternoon playing pioneer games and trading and bartering in our ‘pioneer general store.’

Kathe Reading Indoors

This year’s participants during the Pioneer program day had an extra special treat when Kathe Crowley Conn, a local author, visited to share her new book about fascinating life of Juliette Kinzie, a pioneer and frontier author who lived in early 1800’s Wisconsin.  Juliette Kinzie: Frontier Storyteller, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, follows Juliette’s journey from a comfortable life out east in the early 1800’s to a rugged log cabin in what would later become Wisconsin.

pioneer girls feather pens

Conn shared passages from her book, painting a vivid picture of Kinzie’s life for the students.  Some favorite moments for the audience were when Conn shared the story about Kinzie’s ‘pet’ deer  and when she shared a replica letter that Kinzie penned by hand and beautifully folded.  The students were encouraged to imagine how they would have felt traveling to pioneer-era Wisconsin, and had many great questions for Conn about Kinzie’s life, hobbies, and legacy.  The students then got to try writing letters with feather pens themselves.  What a wonderful way to spend the day, exploring and learning about a fascinating character in Wisconsin’s history!


This Week at the Little Free Library!

IMG_2557Hop on the school bus, because we’re going back, back, back in time this week at the Little Free Library! Join Ms. Frizzle and the gang as they explore the field of paleontology in the Jurassic era finding dinosaur bones. (Little known fact: this book is the first time Ms. Frizzle’s name is ever mentioned.) Take a book, leave a book, and read on!

This Week at the Little Free Library!

IMG_2553Geared toward a more advanced young reader or adult, Robert Leonard Reid’s Arctic Circle: Birth and Rebirth in the Land of the Caribou explores the author’s journey through the mysterious Arctic as he follows the caribou through their annual breeding patterns. Written in his 70′s, Reid reflects on life and death while also delivering natural history quips in this charming travelogue.