When Is a Robin Not a Robin? When It's a Thrush.
March 3, 2015 8:17 PM   Subscribe

With spring just around the corner (Mother Nature swears for real this time), North Americans are eagerly on the lookout for one of the earliest migratory harbingers of spring, the robin.

Wait, what? Robins are a Christmas bird! Hey, that's not a robin at all!

The European Robin, Erithacus rubecula, a flycatcher beloved of British folklore, brings good luck (and good insect control) to farmers and gardeners. They are 5 inches long, resident in the British Isles year-round, and often the only songbird still singing in the winter garden – easy to spot with their bright-red breasts. This combined with the bright-red uniforms of the British postman gave them a permanent connection to Christmas in England.

The American Robin, Turdus migratorius, is twice the size of its European counterpart (9 to 11 inches), and has a bright orange chest and belly. It is a thrush, named by American settlers for the popular European bird of which it reminded them. They migrate south in the fall and are the first birds to return to the northern part of the continent, following an advancing line of 36*F average temperatures, a sure sign of the return of spring. (The Christmas bird in North America is typically the non-migratory, tuneful, bright-red male cardinal who frequents winter feeders.) Like European Robins, American Robins are well-adapted to living with humans, liking the scattered trees and broad lawns of urban parks and suburban housing developments, even following gardeners around to reap the bounty of worms that pop up as they turn over the soil.

European Robins have a musical, liquid song, beginning an hour before sunrise and continuing until half an hour after sunset. American Robins make more discrete, raspier whistle with brief pauses in between phrases, and have the decency only to sing while the sun is up. However, European Robins are aggressively territorial and so sing solo, while American Robins will noisily roost together in large flocks.

Robin's eggs in Europe are not blue – they're beige or cream. Only in North America are they the color popularized as Robin's Egg Blue.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (42 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
You can tell they're actually thrushes because in the Fall they're constantly knocking snails around and revealing secret magic keyholes into lonely mountains.
posted by ursus_comiter at 8:22 PM on March 3, 2015 [12 favorites]


In Atlanta, you can spy Robins year round but they are really prolific this time of year. My midtown, neighbor chickens love to scratch up the mulch in my front yard and impossibly fat Robins are right behind... looking for worms. Spring is close.
posted by pearlybob at 8:34 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's weird to see this now. Toronto has been perpetually snow covered and freezing cold since the new year, so birds have seemed pretty scarce but I came home today and there were at least 7 robins sitting around my back deck. Wish I had some worms for them.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:36 PM on March 3, 2015


So this is why Batman and Ribin always seemed a weird pairung as a British kid growing up. Well, slightly more weird.
posted by Artw at 8:40 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


THIS IS BULLSHIT

Europeans appropriating Michigan's state bird. YOU WON'T GET AWAY WITH IT
posted by disclaimer at 8:44 PM on March 3, 2015


The first time I visited my British in-laws for Christmas, we watched the weather forecast on the BBC and they had a little graphic of a bird on the screen.

"What's that?" I asked.

My mother-in-law turned to me and exclaimed "Why, that's a robin! Don't you have those?"

"Well, yes, but why? What's the connection?"

So she explained about robins and Christmas and I thought THIS COUNTRY IS WEIRD. ROBINS ARE SPRING BIRDS, SURELY.

Because this is the woman who asked the cat if it was "time for tea." (Then I had to have *that* explained to me.)
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 8:47 PM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


So once upon a time I worked with an intern from Germany. I'm sure there were were lots of things about the States that were weird / unexpected for her, but the one that she mentioned again and again was how TOTALLY AMAZING and UNEXPECTED cardinals were. Like why weren't we calling the zoo to let them know where their escaped bird had gotten to amazing an unexpected.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:52 PM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


It's a strange world, isn't it?
posted by Nevin at 9:08 PM on March 3, 2015


Turdus migratorius

huh-huh
posted by 7segment at 9:17 PM on March 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


From the second link: "the first time I was introduced to the American robin I was quite surprised at it's size, the American robin is about 8-11' tall."

This surprises a lot of folks. A quick way to tell British robins and American robins apart: if you could mistake it for a bird-shaped basketball hoop, it's American. If it is perched on an American robin, it's British. (If it's eating you and/or your large dog, it's also American.)
posted by papayaninja at 9:18 PM on March 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


8-11' tall? That's a Big Bird! ^_^

Here in NorCal, the Varied Thrushes were here all winter. The Robins showed up about 2 weeks ago....

(on preview, high-fives papayaninja)
posted by CrowGoat at 9:51 PM on March 3, 2015


No idea they were anything but spring birds. It's kind of neat to have something that you assume is just a given fact to everyone be broken. Wonder what else I assume to be true for the world that isn't.

To be fair, I was named after a nest of them outside our house and my birthday is in spring so there is my bias.
posted by kanata at 9:55 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


The British robin lives in close proximity to humans, waiting for gardeners to turn up worms and sometimes nesting in disused machinery, etc. The European robin is a shy, woodland bird that shuns human contact.

But that's not because they're a different species, it's because Brits have gardens with feeding tables and bird baths whereas in most of Europe they have shotguns and delicious recipes for tiny songbirds.
posted by Segundus at 9:56 PM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


And I only just learned after reading the Wikipedia entries linked in this post and then googling for the Australian robin, that the Australian one is a different family again from either. I had just assumed the robins here were imports from Britain, but in retrospect, I don't know why I thought anyone would have done that.
posted by lollusc at 1:20 AM on March 4, 2015


(I always knew the NZ ones were native, though, because they didn't even bother with the red breast, so they clearly weren't proper robins at all.)
posted by lollusc at 1:22 AM on March 4, 2015


in retrospect, I don't know why I thought anyone would have done that.

It could have been the case: after all the starling was introduced to America by nutters who thought the US should have every bird mentioned in Shakespeare, or some such. Taking robins to Australia would not have been appreciably less rational.
posted by Segundus at 1:38 AM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


For the record, some Robins remain in Michigan all winter...It's always odd to see them, but they are here....
posted by HuronBob at 2:56 AM on March 4, 2015


The flocking behaviour of the American Robin must only happen after winter migration, because they are quite territorial during the nesting season.
posted by cardboard at 3:01 AM on March 4, 2015


I had just assumed the robins here were imports from Britain, but in retrospect, I don't know why I thought anyone would have done that.

Friends for the rabbits, surely.

Everything is still snow-covered here (it snowed last night), no robins at all.
posted by jeather at 4:17 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


11 inches tall? I have never seen a robin even approaching that size. Where do they have those?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:33 AM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


The robin in Mary Poppins is clearly not a British one.
posted by Segundus at 4:47 AM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've never seen an 11 inch tall robin either. 8 maybe but approaching a foot is a stretch.
(Ha! )
posted by pearlybob at 4:52 AM on March 4, 2015


HuronBob: "For the record, some Robins remain in Michigan all winter"

Yeah, there are actually a lot of links I didn't include about how climate and habitat change now mean American robins are resident year-round in much colder places. It's usually just one or two who can find enough food and a warm enough human-waste-heat roost, but they are resident in more places year-round. (Google "robin harbinger of spring" and you'll get two dozen articles saying "ARE robins our harbinger of spring anymore? Probably not.")

We didn't have one this winter, but we've had one maybe one winter in three the last few years. The rest of our winter flock is teeny sparrows and juncos all fluffed up like tennis balls, and the majestic cardinals as the boss birds; the robin looks like a dope because he's so much bigger than the rest of them.

Kirth Gerson: "11 inches tall? I have never seen a robin even approaching that size. Where do they have those?"

We had one a couple years ago that used to come by when I was gardening, and I'd half-see him land, and be like, "Is that a CROW?" and turn to look at him and be like, "Whoa, no, mutant gigantic robin." He was huuuuuuuuge. I'd say mostly I see them in the 8-to-9-inch range, too, but this one particular one was around all summer and he was seriously the size of a small crow.

What's interesting to me about the Robin Confusion is that both American and European Robins function as symbols quite frequently in English-language literature, but they carry different meanings because they are different birds ... but close enough together (comfortable with humans, friend of gardeners, pretty song) that you might not pick it up! American robins are big, bluff, gregarious, markers of springtime and returning life; European robins are tiny sole voices in the dead landscape singing songs of hope and fighting the good fight against winter and loneliness. One fierce little bird against the world! Once you start to notice it, it pops up quite frequently in English-language literature and you're like, "Wait ... is this robin a sign against despair or a symbol that things are starting to change?"
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:13 AM on March 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


"ARE robins our harbinger of spring anymore? Probably not."

Pittsburgh robins are mostly year-round robins. Why, I received a nice gift of some robin shit on my car just the other day.
posted by GrapeApiary at 5:35 AM on March 4, 2015


I think the first time I saw our poor American robins dissed in comparison to the European was in Nabokov's Pale Fire:
How hard I found to fit the name "robin" to the suburban impostor, the gross fowl, with its untidy dull-red livery and the revolting gusto it showed when consuming long, sad, passive worms. [cite]
Of course, there's a lot of character cues going on in there and it's not, or not just, a straightforward diss of the friendly North American thrush many of us are so fond of -- they're one of the friendlier yard birds, hanging around quite close, I find, when I am gardening (probably hoping for one of those sad, passive, Freudian worms for lunch, no doubt) -- but I almost always think of that passage when I see them.
posted by aught at 5:56 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is one of those things that is obvious in retrospect, but never occurred to me. I always assumed they were the same bird.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:12 AM on March 4, 2015


Here in North Carolina during the recent snow we had a flock of maybe 30 robins camped in our postage-stamp-sized yard for a couple of days. They ate every berry on every holly bush on the street and left tons of poop all over everything. That and they were the size and shape of a Nerf basketball. I mean COMPLETELY SPHERICAL with feet sticking out. I have no idea how they could fly. Crazy.
posted by freecellwizard at 6:17 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


European robins are tiny sole voices in the dead landscape singing songs of hope and fighting the good fight against winter and loneliness.

Though I find our (American) robins almost always show up a few weeks before the bad weather actually ends, and then they kind of poke around, forlorn and hungry, at the frozen grass, and impatiently perch in bare trees and bent-down shrubs waiting for the weather to get better. (And often, distressingly, I observe them in little groups eating road salt along road shoulders, which I hope isn't as bad for them as it seems like it must be.)

That said, I haven't seen any robins here this year yet (upstate NY / Finger Lakes) but I have noticed just the last couple days random faint bird songs in the morning in the distance (none obviously robin to my semi-educated ears) so they're probably around somewhere, or about to arrive. It is March, after all... even if the low is going to be below zero again tomorrow.
posted by aught at 6:30 AM on March 4, 2015


American robins are big, bluff, gregarious, markers of springtime and returning life; European robins are tiny sole voices in the dead landscape singing songs of hope and fighting the good fight against winter and loneliness.

If that's not a metaphor for Americans vs Brits I don't know what is.
posted by maryr at 8:20 AM on March 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


You know, I was thinking about robins the other day. The only other examples of very disparate species that share a common name I could think of were possums (Australian, American) and dolphins (porpoise, mahi). Are there others?
posted by workerant at 8:47 AM on March 4, 2015


Freshwater (North American, what I grew up with calling a sunfish) vs ocean sunfish (that I have become familiar with through Japanese pop culture)?
posted by maryr at 9:12 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Thrushes or robins, they are some plump-ass birds.
posted by blucevalo at 9:27 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you live on the Gulf Coast you might be seeing the first Ruby-throated hummingbirds headed north.
posted by peeedro at 9:55 AM on March 4, 2015


As a kid in Scotland, our garden had a pair of robins who would dart behind the shovel as you turned over the vegetable patch, zipping out with tasty worm fragments. We thought we were friendly, cheery little birds.

Then we saw the male dispatch a springtime challenger with a single beak-strike through the skull. Vicious little bastards, robins.
posted by scruss at 10:12 AM on March 4, 2015


workerant: " Are there others?"

"Buzzards" are usually hawks in the UK, and vultures in the US (when I see pictures of UK buzzards I'm like, "That's not even a little bit a buzzard, that's a hawk!"). The American kestrel is a pretty, small (7-8") orange-and-blue hawk that is the smallest hawk in the US; the "common kestrel" (the only species called "kestrel" in the UK) is a 13-15", much larger buff-colored hawk that's frequently used to symbolize battlefield prowess. Those are both members of the "falco" genus, though, so fairly closely related. American kestrels used to be called sparrowhawks for their similarity to European sparrowhawks, but they're not that either.

"Panthers" are leopards in the Old World and cougars in the New World.

I'm sure there are more bird ones; early English-speaking North American colonists were not super-creative bird namers and liked to name them after birds they already knew that reminded them of home. I bet there are also rodent/garden pest ones, since "tiny critter stealing my grain" usually doesn't need to be hyperspecific for your cat to kill it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:55 AM on March 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


More precisely, the American kestrel is a falcon, not a hawk.
posted by JackFlash at 1:31 PM on March 4, 2015


Wait, what does asking the cat if it's time for tea mean?
posted by jamaro at 9:56 PM on March 4, 2015


In England, 'tea' is a meal, like a late lunch.
posted by ursus_comiter at 6:53 AM on March 5, 2015


Tea is also a drink, which it is always time for.

Mmmm. Tea.
posted by Artw at 8:04 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Panthers" are leopards in the Old World and cougars in the New World.

A bit of a bad example as in the States a cougar is a puma, a mountain lion, a catamount, or a fox.
posted by maryr at 8:33 AM on March 5, 2015


workerant: " Are there others?"

The magpie is another one. European magpie (pica pica); australian magpie (cracticus tibicen).
posted by lollusc at 9:22 PM on March 9, 2015


Wait, in Europe the magpie is a lightning rat?
posted by ursus_comiter at 11:26 AM on March 10, 2015


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