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Wildbird Watching

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robins, early SpringThe Red-Breasted Robin: Harbinger of Spring
by Marjorie Dorfman

Where did this noble bird that is so symbolic of spring really come from? What is its history and its contribution to American culture? Read on for some avian answers...

When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbing along, there’ll be no more sobbing when he starts singing his old sweet song…
~ Harry Woods

There is probably no creature from the animal kingdom more symbolic of impending warmer weather than the sight of the red-breasted robin after the last snow of the season, bursting with song across lawns and trees everywhere. First described as Turdus migratorius in 1766 by Linnaeus in the twelfth edition of his Sytema Naturae, the name derives from the Latin, turdus, or thrush, and migratorious from migrare, meaning to go. The word robin has been in recorded use since 1703, and it refers to about 65 species of medium to large thrushes characterized by rounded heads, longish, pointed wings and melodious songs.

connecticut robinIt is said that during the early years of American history, English colonists were homesick and sorely missed the sight of their small, bright ‘robin redbreast,’ a backyard songbird ubiquitous in the Old World. The rusty-colored breast of its American cousin reminded many of their own beloved robins and so they bestowed that name upon it. Despite the opposition of naturalists, the use of the word persists.

michigan robinThe American Robin is widely distributed throughout North America and is the state bird of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin. Usually, the species spends the winter south of Canada from Florida to central Mexico and along the Pacific Coast. Many robins winter in New England, roosting among the evergreens in the swamps where they feed on berries of the season.

wisconsin robinIts breeding habitat is woodland and open farmland and urban areas as well. It is not common for these birds to breed in the southern United States but when they do, they prefer large trees on lawns. The European Robin is similar to its American cousin, differentiating itself only by its smaller size. The females tend to have duller coloration than their male counterparts, noted for a brown tint to the head, brown in its upper body and less bright in its lower body.

The daylight hours are the most active, for that is when they feed on fruits and berries in smaller groups. By night, the species often assembles in large flocks. Its diet consists of fruits, berries, caterpillars and beetles. Their eggs are usually the first of the season as they begin breeding quickly after settling into their summer range. Soft materials such as grass cushion their nests, which usually consist of long coarse grass, twigs and feathers smeared with mud. They are among the first birds to bless the dawn with their song.

robin with wormThe adult robin is not without its natural enemies. Hawks, cats and larger snakes often prey upon the species, but when the birds are feeding in flocks, they are more adept at keeping a watchful eye on other birds and their reaction to impending predators. Robins hunt visually, not by hearing, and their running and stopping behavior is a distinguishing characteristic. Frequently, during the warmer months, these birds are seen scampering across lawns, earthworms in beak.

The female of the species is the sole builder of the nest, which is most commonly located 5 to 15 feet above the ground in a dense bush or in a fork between two tree branches. A new nest is built for each brood and the American robin is not fearful of nesting close to human habitation. The female is also the sole incubator of the clutch, which usually consists of three to five light blue eggs.

fledgling robinThe eyes of the newborn chicks are closed for the first seventy-two hours, after which the birds slowly begin to leave the nest. Both the adult male and female robin protect and feed the chicks until they can forage for themselves, and the mother broods them continuously. As they age, brooding time decreases and the mother will do it only at night or during inclement weather. After two weeks, the fledgling robins become capable of sustained flight for short distances, but even after leaving the nest, they often follow their parents around and beg for food.

robinThe adult robin is protective of its young, signaling alarm calls and dive-bombing predators, including family pets and humans that venture too close to the young birds. Juvenile wings develop rapidly and it only takes a few weeks for them to fly proficiently. Usually, only about 25 percent of robin fledglings survive the first years and the longest known life span of a robin in the wild is 14 years. On an average, they live about two years. The male is known for its beautiful, continuous song, which varies in complexity and tone according to the time of day.

Long considered a harbinger of spring, the robin has been duly honored in prose and song. Emily Dickenson’s poem, I Dreaded That First Robin So, is a prime example. There were many 19th-century poems featuring our favorite red-breasted fellow and madame, including The First Robin by Dr. William Drummond, inspired by the doctor’s wife who believed the Quebec superstition that whoever sees the first robin of the season will be blessed with good luck.

robins mateThe American Robin is no stranger to the world of American song as well. When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along, written by Harry Woods, was a hit for early twentieth century performers, including Al Jolson and Lillian Roth, to name a few. In the late 1950s, Bobby Day hit the top ten on the charts with a song he recorded for the teen rock ‘n roll set. Rockin’ Robin, written by Roger Thomas, was very popular for several months.

N.C. Wyeth’s illustration of Robin Hood was the inspiration for the comic-book superhero, Robin. Supposedly, he was so named because he was born on the first day of spring and his red shirt suggests the hallmark red breast of the bird. Crayola has a colored crayon, "robin egg blue" which derives from the pretty shade of the eggs. The American Robin was depicted on a Canadian two-dollar note in 1986, but it is no longer in circulation.

In the Disney film, Mary Poppins, which is set in London, the American Robin was incorrectly portrayed singing by an open window instead of its English cousin and both robins seen building a nest in that same film are males, which is a second faux-pas.

robin bathSo the next time a red robin comes "bob, bob, bobbin’ along," stop and say hello. After all, you share a common history albeit not avian, with your fellow feathered American. He or she may or may not salute back, depending on whether or not there is a non-suspecting earthworm in view, but it’s still worth a try. If you miss, don’t worry. There’s always next spring.

Did you know . . . ?

animal news

Don't miss this essential book about robins:

The American Robin

by Roland H. Wauer

American Robin

This is a concise yet authoritative history of the best-known bird in America. Wauer, a long-time National Park Service naturalist, draws from his own experience as well as widespread scientific sources. He presents a vivid picture of the robin's life, migrations, food, habits, breeding behavior, distribution, enemies and place in American folklore.

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