A thrush in robin's clothing

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112369540513959.jpg’, ‘Image courtesy of www.hi-ho.ne.jp’, ‘If given a choice, the robin will dine almost exclusively on earthworms, but will also eat a variety of insects. Perhaps the berry in this robin's beak is dessert.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11236954968515.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The American robin is one of our most beloved birds, but recent studies indicate it may play a role in the transmission of the West Nile virus.’);

One of our most beloved birds is the American robin, but in truth this delightful bird is not a robin at all but a member of the thrush family. The true robin is a smaller bird occurring in Europe and is the species that has figured so prominently in the folklore of the Old World. According to fairy tales, the European robin is the bird that was supposed to have covered the lost babes in the woods with leaves to protect them. It is also the one that got its red breast by scorching it while fanning the fire of a lost traveler and preventing him from freezing to death.

When the early settlers came to North America, they gave this thrush the name of robin as it resembled in coloration the bird they had known in their homeland. If they had been more observant of the details of the anatomy of the American bird, they would have noted it was more closely related to the European blackbird than to the true robin redbreast. In addition to the similarity of the body parts, the spots on the breast of the young American robin attest to its relationship to the thrushes. Phylogenetic considerations aside, I am sure we will continue to call this bird a robin. Calling the American robin a thrush of some type somehow borders on the obscene.

If a popularity poll were taken to determine the most admired bird in the United States, I feel certain the robin would place near the top. Everyone knows and is fond of this bird that has adapted so easily to man’s environment and, upon occasion, renders a delightful song for all to enjoy. The robin is so well liked it has been selected as the official state bird of Michigan, Connecticut, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Ornithological studies have shown that the food of the robin is about 57 percent animal and 43 percent vegetable. If given a choice, the robin will dine almost exclusively on earthworms, but if worms are scarce, they will stuff themselves on various insects, including harmful wireworms, Japanese beetles, tent caterpillars, and army worms. Unfortunately, they also have a taste for cherries, strawberries, and a variety of other fruits, and they may do insignificant damage to these crops at certain times of the year.

As with other birds, the robin has a host of enemies. Blacksnakes destroy many of the fledglings in the nest as do unrestrained feral cats. Predator hawks and owls take a toll, and the parasitic cowbird will frequently take over a robin’s nest, kick out the robin’s eggs, lay its own eggs, and have the mother robin incubate them as her own.

In the past, man has been a formidable foe of this unobtrusive bird. One hundred-fifty years ago, Audubon, the famous naturalist and ornithologist, related the following concerning man’s predation on robins: “…in all southern states hunters bring them home by the bagsful, and the markets are well supplied with them at a very cheap rate.”

The female constructs the nest of mud and grasses and lays from three to five blue eggs. She knows how to make her self comfortable while incubating the eggs as she constructs the nest to conform to the exact shape of her body. This undoubtedly alleviates some of her body strain during the two-week incubation period. Two or three broods may be produced each year.

Contrary to popular opinion, seeing a robin or two in late February or early March is not a harbinger of an early spring. Many robins migrate south during the cold months, but a few brave ones stick around our area for the entire year. During cold weather, these stay-at-homes hole up in dense woods and other protected places where they are not likely to be noticed. If a warm spell occurs, some may venture out in search of food. On a few occasions, I have had robins come to my suet feeder in the dead of winter. If a TV weatherman sees one of these early birds, he may be inclined to go out on a limb and announce that spring is just around the corner. Using the groundhog or the Old Farmer’s Almanac would be a better source for his prognostications.

A recent report of the possible involvement of our robin with the transmission of the West Nile virus is disturbing. Recent studies done in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Tennessee show that the vast majority of blooded, mosquito vector species captured and tested had previously fed on robins and not crows. Crows have formerly been believed to be the primary source of the virus in nature. However, the research is in its infancy, and the blood of robins has not been tested to determine if they are actually reservoirs of the virus.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Aug. 10-16, 2005, issue

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