One question many people might have about the American Robin is this: is there another kind of robin that is not American? I will come back to the answer in just a bit. The American Robin is one of the most familiar birds, indeed, to Americans. They nest in yards from coast to coast. Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin all chose the American Robin as state bird. They are identified by gray back, black head and tail, and, of course, distinctive orange breast (duller in females). The orange or “red” breast was reminiscent of the European Robin, also called Robin Redbreast in England. However, the birds are not closely related. The American Robin is a member of the thrush family. Only the juvenile robin has a streaked or spotted breast as a give-away that it is a thrush. Good references for identification include National Audubon Society: Field Guide to North American Birds (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1998) by John Bull and John Farrand, Jr., and National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Birds (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000) by David Allen Sibley.
A good resource for general information about birds is The World Atlas of Birds (Sir Peter Scott, ed., Crescent Books, New York, 1974). It gives an overview of all the orders and families of birds and features birds of various habitats from New World to Old World. It places the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) in the Nearctic Realm and describe it as an example of birds in “The City: Land of Opportunity,” for its urban/suburban habitation. A close relative in Europe is Turdus merula or “Blackbird,” not related to our blackbirds, which shows the confusion caused by common names. Notably, in addition to the European Robin, a member of the chat family, mentioned above, there is a “Pink Robin” in Australia, which is a member of the flycatcher family.
The American Robin is often seen on grassy lawns in a tug-of-war with an earthworm, which does not pull out easily because they are anchored by stiff bristles. Besides worms, insects make most of their summer diet. The birds are not afraid to nest close to human habitations on window sills, electrical boxes, or more pristinely in trees. The parents guard three to five blue-green eggs in a concave nest made of mud, grass, and twigs, and lined with grass. Their busy call is cheer-up, cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily. They also make sharper, higher pitched calls when alarmed. They fly when approached but usually not far, and if you are mowing, sprinkling, or hoeing—anything that brings worms to the surface–they will soon be back. Fledglings make clumsy attempts at flight, often landing not far from the nest. Although I fear for them, there is something adorable, even amusing, about their over-sized bodies compared to their clumsy actions. They have lovely spotted breasts. (I often feel that I should help them, but don’t know how and so let nature takes its course.) For those who survive, they feast on fruits in the fall and, surprisingly, do not go far in the winter. They move into more wooded cover and form flocks. They will visit feeders at times for seeds. They will reappear again in our yards in early spring.
The thrushes, as a group, are some of our most beautiful singers. Most members of the family either nest farther north or winter in the tropics and are less familiar to us. The Wood Thrush, however, nests over the eastern half of the country, preferring deeper woods than robins, with lots of undergrowth. The song is flutelike and rises to a trill or whistle. I have sought out deep woods at times, hoping to be rewarded by their song, and consider myself fortunate when I succeed.