Saturday, July 30, 2011

Robin Redbreast

European Robin - aka Robin Redbreast - aka Robin
© Whiskybottle |

The American Robin is not a robin. English colonists came to North America for religious freedom and economic gain, and to escape from poverty and oppression. Carving a life out of a strange, new land took all of their energies. The niceties and precision of the developing sciences had to wait. When they named something new, they often drew on experience from their old land, or even nostalgia for the old land.

Such was the case with the “robin.” They saw a bird with a red breast, and it brought to mind the robin back in England. This robin (now officially known as the European Robin) bore a superficial resemblance to the bird they encountered in North America; the robin back home had, and still has, an orange-red face and breast.

Ornithological precision lay far in the future for the first English colonists. They tended to call anything with a red breast a robin. The Eastern Bluebird was a robin. The Eastern Towhee (formerly the Rufous-sided Towhee) carried the name “Ground Robin.” The Robin Snipe might be the Red Knot or one of the two dowitchers.

One could say that the name, “Robin,” was strewn around indiscriminately. The Baltimore Oriole was called the Golden Robin; the Cedar Waxwing was the Canadian Robin, and the Red-breasted Merganser was known as the Sea Robin.

“Robin” seems to be of French origin, a diminutive of Robert, but the English bear the responsibility for attaching the name to the bird. The European Robin began as Redbreast, then acquired the pet name, Robin Redbreast, and eventually Redbreast was dropped. This European Robin is the Robin Redbreast of the nursery rhyme:

European Robin
© Rosteckm |
Little Robin Redbreast sat upon a tree,
Up climbed pussycat and down went he,
Down came pussycat, away Robin ran.
Says little Robin Redbreast, "Catch me if you can."
Little Robin Redbreast flew upon a wall,
Pussycat jumped after him, and almost had a fall.
Little Robin chirped and sang and what did pussy say?
Pussycat said, "Mew," and Robin flew away.

The European Robin also inspired:

Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.

In North America, the common name, “robin,” has gradually dropped away from many of its early associations. The officially sanctioned name for our robin is American Robin. This distinguishes it from other birds in the world named Robin. For example, there are tropical and Central American robins which occasionally stray into North America, especially along the Rio Grande: White-throated Robin, Rufous-backed Robin, and Clay-colored Robin.

European Robin
© Johnbraid |
In the process of researching how our robin got its name, I encountered the term, “round robin.” The term is used for any activity in which a group participates in a circular manner. For example, in sports, round-robin refers to every player or team in a group taking turns to play one another a set number of times.

The Dictionary of Word Origins attributes the origin to a document which was signed by multiple parties in a circle to make it more difficult to determine the order in which it was signed. The first round-robin document was signed on the brig, Catherine, at Gibralter in 1612.

European Robin
© Stephen Inglis |
“The crew was discontented but well aware that the captain had the right to enforce discipline by hanging to the yardarm whomever he decided was the chief dissenter. The first name signed to a petition was likely to be taken as sufficient evidence of leadership and justify the extreme penalty. To avoid this fate for any one individual the crew decided to append their names in the form of a circle. Thus all signatures were on an equal basis and the captain could scarcely hang the whole crew. The story goes that a statuette of a Robin on a circular base was close at hand. This was used to trace a circle which formed a guide for writing the signatures around it. This device to protect individual petitioners henceforth became known as a “round robin.” (Choate, American Bird Names)

European Robin
© Nbgbgbg |
So as you see, when “robin” crops up in nursery rhymes or language idioms, it does not refer to our American Robin. Our American Robin has done nothing to earn its place in the nursery jingle except for its vague resemblance to the European Robin. The English, by the way, do not need the precision of “European” when referring to their Robin, any more than we need the precision of “American” when referring to our Robin. Robin on their side of the pond means Robin, just as Robin on our side of the pond means (American) Robin.

American Robin
In fact, our American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is not even a robin. It is a thrush belonging to the thrush family, Turdidae. Some nomenclators with a consistency obsession would like to call the Turdidae robins, thrushes: for example, the Clay-colored Thrush (Turdus grayi) rather than Clay-colored Robin.

The European Robin which inspired the common name for our robin belongs to the family Muscicapinae, a family of Old World Flycatchers. They are thrush-like, insect-eating flycatchers in a family that includes the nightingales and Old World chats.

In the North American thrush family, Turdidae, our American Robin shares its Genus Turdus with the Varied Thrush. Other close relatives include the Eastern Bluebird (Genus Sialia) and several of our local thrushes: Wood Thrush (Genus Hylocichia) and in Genus Catharus, Veery, Bicknell’s, Swainson”s, and Hermit Thrushes.

Our Robin may not be a robin, but it keeps good family company with the thrushes.

Note: I did not take the photographs of the European Robin; their use is licensed by


Anonymous said...

I always thought the American Robin flew north after the winter. They would arrive here in Houston, Texas around March then by April they would be gone. But there are a small few that hang around all summer. Why is that? Why don't they fly north?

sfran said...

Having grown up in the east coast of the US, then living for the past ten years in Tasmania (small island state of Australia), my experience with birds named Robins has been similar. I grew up knowing Robin redbreast, and later learned it was a thrush. When I first came to Tasmania my local friends pointed me to the Pink Robin, which is a small rainforest bird with a bright pink breast; a member of the Petroicidae family (sometimes called Australasian Robins). I somehow had trouble calling them Robins. The very common suburban bird known here as a Blackbird struck me as being much more Robin-like than the Pink Robin. The Blackbird is introduced here and is indeed a thrush (and is again different than the American blackbird).

Anonymous said...

I spotted three Robins here in Katy Texas on May 19. Last year saw one in early Spring. But years back there were many in early Spring heading up North. Seen very few over the past years in the Houston area


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