On a day recently, when I got out of bed and looked out the bedroom window the sky was gray and light rain was falling. The temperature outside was a few degrees above freezing. It looked was a dull, dreary day, another dull dreary day. I washed, dressed, got bird seed to take out to my bird feeders and stepped outside. And I heard a robin, singing.
In Birds of America the robin is called “probably the best know bird in America.” The robin has a very wide distribution in summer, all but the most northern part of Canada and a bit of northeastern Alaska south through Florida and California and into Mexico.
The robin is about ten inches long and a conspicuous bird. A male’s male’s breast is bright orange, its head is black, its through is streaked with white and its back wings and tail are dark gray. A female is also orange and gray though lighter, and its head is also gray, not black.
Another reason the robin is so well known is its adaptation to living around our homes. I’ve seen robin nests on window ledges, in rain gutters and on fire escapes. They are common on lawns, searching for grasshoppers, crickets, other insects and worms. They also gather in cherry trees when the fruit ripens.
The female does almost all the construction, putting together a mound of small sticks, grass and mud. In the center it she makes a cup the size and shape of her breast and lines it with fine grass. Out of the nest the spot breasted fledglings follow the male bird and the female lays another set of eggs and starts incubating a second brood.
Robins are well known because they are considered harbingers of spring. To see a robin in March in northern Iowa, when I was a boy, meant spring was near. Robins went south from approximately the northern half of their northern range.
Now it is not unusual to see a robin in winter in northern Iowa where I lived as a boy, in northern Indiana where I live now and in most of the other northern states in winter. The American robin could be listed as an indication of climate change.
The robin of America was named for its resemblance to the robin of Great Britain and Europe, a bird that is orange on its face, throat and upper breast. But it’s brown on the top of its head, its back, wings and tail, white on the lower breast and belly and its half as big as the American robin.
Both robins were called robin-redbreast. But neither actually has a red breast. It’s orange, not red, on the face, throat and upper breast of the European bird, on the breast and belly of the American.
The orange on the breast is the only resemblance between the American and European robins. A male American robin has a black head, a white throat, gray back, wings and tail. The female is lighter on the head, back, breast and belly. A young American robin, a fledgling, is spot breasted and short tailed. The European robin is brown on the top of the head, on its back, wings and tail and white on the belly.
Both American and European robins have been called robin-redbreast though the breasts of both are orange not red. But there is a poem in which they are red. One line of the poem is, “When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbing along.”
Before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed in the U.S. the robin was a game bird in many southern states of the U.S. Robins were hunted like mourning doves are now. One hundred years ago I might have shot the robin I heard singing. On that dreary morning recently I was cheered to hear and see it.
— Neil Case may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org