Sunday, February 13, 2011

The American Robin returns -- or does it?

The American robin, Turdus migratorius
Do you picture a robin when you think of spring? Red-breasted and alert, stalking worms in the grass, or singing from an exposed perch -- slurred up, slurred down, cheery-up, cheery-o, cheery-up, cheery-o.

We think of robins as long-distance migrants that return in spring from warm southern wintering grounds. But many robins never leave.

Those that migrate probably move south to find food rather than to escape the cold. The ones that spend the winter in the north easily survive the weather, but their summer foods dwindle; insects become less available and worms move down deep in the soil to avoid the cold. No problem -- the robins switch to eating dried fruits and berries. As robins abandon lawns and fields it seems like they have all gone south. But a flock of robins may suddenly appear on a tree where there is dried fruit throughout the winter, even as snow is falling.

Robins that do migrate return to their breeding grounds in early spring. The males sing a loud attention getting song when they arrive and we notice them. In winter the birds are more likely to go quietly about their business and escape our notice.

I will be glad when the robins begin to sing this year; it is not too far away (despite those persistent piles of snow on the street corners.) During the warm days of spring I often hear them singing in Brooklyn's trees from early morning until after dark. They also make a little whinnying sound when they are alarmed and a few other alarm calls like peep and tut that are the bird equivalents of eek and ulp.

Robins make nests in my condo garden every year, despite endless loud car traffic on the nearby Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The birds are famous for their bright blue eggs (for which Crayola has named a crayon robin's egg blue). The robin is among the most recognizable of American birds and it is one of the most handsome. It is the official state bird of Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin. We love robins.

But I have some bad news. Do you remember Mother Goose nursery rhymes about them?

     The north wind doth blow, and we shall have snow,
     And what will poor robin do then, Poor thing?
     He'll sit in a barn, and keep himself warm, 
     And hide his head under his wing.

Or Who Killed Cock Robin?

     All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
     When they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.

Or endless variations about the romance of Robin Redbreast and Jenny Wren?

     Little Jenny Wren fell sick upon a time;
     In came Robin Redbreast and brought her cake and wine. 
     Robin Redbreast rose betimes all at the break of day
     He flew to Jenny Wren's house and sang a roundelay
    He sang of Robin Redbreast and little Jenny Wren
    And when he came unto the end, he then began again. 

None of these were written about the American robin! The rhymes originated in England where an entirely different bird goes by the name of robin; it has a red breast but it is a tiny and delicate bird that is not closely related to ours. (There are "robins" in other parts of the world too -- little yellow "forest robins" and a blue-and-yellow "starred robin" in Africa, and a variety of yellow, black, blue, and red birds that are called robins in Australia.)

But the nursery rhymes work well enough for American red-breasted robins, even if they were not meant that way; we have adopted them. And American writers have said memorable things enough about Turdus migratorius, especially winter-worn American writers from the northeast, like me. Here is one example from a long list:

                                    The Robin is the one,  Emily Dickinson

                                    The Robin is the one
                                     That interrupts the morn
                                    With hurried, few, express reports
                                    When March is scarcely on.
                                    The robin is the one
                                    That overflows the noon
                                    With her cherubic quantity,
                                    An april but begun.

                                    The robin is the one
                                    That speechless from her nest
                                    Submits that home and certainty
                                    And sanctity are best.


  1. Could I use the last photo at

    1. Yes -- please put my name on it JFeinstein and a link back to the blog if you can.

    2. You are welcome! I'm always flattered when someone wants to use one of my photos. :-)

  2. Robins are seen on the upper east side of Manhattan right now.