When the red, red robin goes bob, bob, bobbin’ along

This was a popular song in the era of the wind-up Victrola and its thick phonograph records. One of my first memories is playing with an old machine stored in a great-aunt's attic.

Wake up, wake up, you sleepy head,
Get up, get up, get out of bed

The robin was the first bird many youngsters learned to identify, not necessarily because of the song. In snowshoe country, just south of the Canadian border, winters were severe and protracted. Spring was very welcome. Its arrival was heralded by the robin.

The sighting of the first robin, always a solitary male, was front page news in many little towns. The males arrived first to claim their individual territories. Very anti-social, they frequently had bloody battles until the boundary lines were drawn.

The females arrived several weeks later. The birds paired off into couples and began building the sloppy nests that robins are so fond of. Four to six eggs were laid, displaying the clear cerulean hue known as robin's egg blue.

Once the fledglings were hatched, both parents worked from daybreak to dark gathering food to feed them. The youngsters were independent three weeks after leaving the nest and the adult pair started a second family. By then, Spring had turned into early summer.

Swallows or crocuses or groundhogs may have announced the forthcoming of this exhilarating season in other parts of the country; our harbinger was the robin.

Cheer up, cheer up, now the sun is red
Live, love, laugh and be happy

The American robin is a big, solid-looking thrush ;  at 10 inches in length it is easily 25% larger than other members of the Turdidae family found in the United States. Aside from the vast quantities of insects and worms it collects to feed its young, a robin has a voracious appetite. Birds in captivity have been observed to eat as many as 58 earthworms daily. In human consumption this would be the equivalent of 70 pounds of meat every day.

Although primarily insectivorous, robins also ingest large amounts of fruits and seeds. Studies of stomach contents have revealed as high as 34% vegetable material. This is where the robin runs afoul of mankind, particularly gardeners and orchardists. Cherries, strawberries, raspberries and other drupaceous fruits are prominent on the shopping list of foraging robins. They are very selective, eating only the juiciest part and leaving the rest to rot.

Despite this destructive behavior, robins are well-loved by humans. The name “robin” is used globally, although the various species are only distantly related from one continent to another. Most have several features in common: a red or reddish hue on the throat, breast, or along the flanks, a white eyebrow or white line over or through the eye, a dark head, a jaunty tail, strong migratory habits, and a general tendency to live close to human habitation.

The first robin on record was undoubtedly British. The original name was “Ruddock” or “Redbreast”. Beloved in all the British Isles, the name “Robin Redbreast” is found in folklore and children’s stories. With the years, the name was shortened to “Robin”.

For Americans accustomed to linking robins with Spring, it is strange to find robins on Christmas cards sent by British friends. This custom goes back to Victorian times when mail was delivered on Christmas day and the postman wore red. Members of the postal service, being servants of the Crown, wore the national color, red, and were known as “Robin redbreasts”. In this manner the bird was associated with Christmas greetings.

The European robin is quite different from the American robin. It is much smaller and only the upper chest is red, contrasting with an expanse of white under parts. It is also different in shape, being round rather than long-bodied, and it appears to have no neck.

All robins are similar in that they belong to the Animalia Kingdom, Chordata Phylum, Aves Class, and the Passeriformes Order, as does half the entire bird population in the world. After that, starting with Family, the differences began.

The European Robin, a member of the Muscicapidae Family, is an Old World Flycatcher and is restricted to Europe. It is related to the Rufous-Tailed Robin of Eastern Asia (Mongolia and China), the Indian Blue Robin of the Himalayas and Myanmar, the Siberian Blue Robin of Japan and Indonesia, the White-Throated Robin of Turkey and East Africa, and the Indian Robin of Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka.

The American Robin, as noted earlier, is a member of the Turdidae Family. Its breeding ground is Canada and the United States and its winter habitat extends from the southern parts of the United States to Guatemala. It is related to t. merula, the Blackbird of Europe and Asia. Other near kin are t.iliacus, the Redwing breeding in Scandinavia, and t. torquatus, the Ring Ouzel, which is a thrush found in mountain ranges of western and Central Europe.

It is not related to the North American Red-Winged Blackbird of the Icteridae Family, which covers orioles, blackbirds, meadowlarks, cowbirds and allies. Its only relatives in the New World are the Bluebird and a handful of other thrushes, with the common factor being that all the juveniles have speckled breasts.

Another large group of so-called “robins” are the 45 or so species of Australasia Robins of the Family Petroicidae. This includes such diverse genera as the Jacky Winter, a Tomtit of New Zealand, flycatchers, and scrub-robins. Most of these are stocky little birds with a round form and a short bill.

Despite their general appearance and habits similar to the European Robin and its relatives, they are more closely related to the superfamily of Corvoidea which includes crows and jays. This last point is still being debated in the bird fancier world. Recent studies point to the possibility that the robins of Australasia, while belonging to a genetically old lineage, should be included in Meliphagoidea, thus linking them to Australian wrens, honeyeaters, and thornbills.

Regardless of where the various “robins” appear in basic taxonomy, one historical fact is apparent   :   The British race, displaying its engrained preoccupation with exploration and colonization, managed to find a bit of England in all corners of the globe. When these intrepid travelers went ashore, be it Plymouth Rock or Van Diemen’s Land, a perky little bird with red markings reminded them of home and they immediately claimed it as one of their own.


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