Robins’ Alter Ego

 Illustration by Carolyn Vibbert

Zigzagging across the lawn, singing their well-known carol, and faithfully tending to mud-lined nests on our eaves and porches, robins are among our favorite birds. They signal spring. Here in New Hampshire, we welcome them as the season’s first migrants. They remind us of our best selves. Except for eating worms, they do the things we humans take pride in accomplishing: devoted husband and wife work hard to build a nice home in the suburbs and raise the kids. And robins spread cheer. In fact, more than one field guide reports that the robin’s call sounds like: “Cheer up! Cheerily! Cheer up! Cheerily!”   

One reason we love robins is we know them so well. This is the one bird species that every child can identify without fail. And yet, we know only half the familiar robin’s story.

First migrants of spring? Maybe not. It’s true that robins are among the first birds to return to New Hampshire after flying south for the winter, some traveling as far as Mexico. But some robins don’t migrate at all. Increasingly since 1997, New Hampshire Audubon observers have noted, especially in coastal and southern areas of the state, folks spot robins all winter—a sign of climate change.

Paragons of family devotion? Yes, robins are hard workers. Each member of the pair makes between five hundred and six hundred flights to ferry sticks, moss and mud to the nest construction site, and the birds work five or six 12-hour days to complete the job. Feeding the nestlings takes even more effort: each baby may eat fourteen feet of worms a day. But committed mates robins are not. “Robins are landowners first and lovers only second,” asserts animal behaviorist Len Eiserer. In his book, The American Robin, he explains that the male is more attached to his territory than his spouse. Only one in eight robins takes up with a mate of past years, while more than half of all robins return to the same neighborhood as the previous year.

America’s most beloved bird? Maybe up our way. But down south, in many areas, they’re despised as winter pests. In winter, they may congregate in flocks of up to fifty thousand and switch their diet from worms to fruit. A century ago, orchardists felt justified in shooting them by the thousands. (And people ate them. “They are fat and juicy and afford excellent eating,” reported no less an authority than John James Audubon, who frequently dined on his study subjects.)

Even the robin’s name is a case of mistaken identity. British settlers called our native redbreast by the same name as their European robin—who looks like a bluebird. Ours is more closely related to the European blackbird—who, like our robin, is a thrush.

And what about the robin’s cheery song? Even though it begins within days of their reappearance each spring, even though it lasts from dawn to dusk, even though the males sing all summer long and even though human beings have been listening to the robin’s song for at least ten thousand years (as long as North America has been inhabited by humans), we still aren’t agreed on the lyrics. Some folks I spoke with insisted the birds were crying: “The cherries are ripe! The cherries are ripe!” Others thought they heard: “Captain Gillet! Get your skillet! It’s going to ra-in!” 

That our beliefs about the robin redbreast can be so off-base delights me—as birds always do. Even the “best-known” birds in America still hold wondrous surprises. 

Categories: At Home in NH