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Wednesday, 28 January 2009 16:31

The common beauty of the robin

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Some birds — blue jays, cardinals, mockingbirds, song sparrows, etc. — are so much a part of our everyday lives that they have virtually become invisible. We see them without truly paying attention to their comings and goings, to their particular characteristics.

Of these, the American robin is perhaps the most characteristic. Our elementary school primers inevitably contained illustrations of robust robins pulling long worms out of holes. These days, robins populate television screens on Saturday mornings as they hop about in cartoon features, representing — as it were — the idea of a “bird.” We know what a robin looks like in outline and we know how to spell “r-o-b-i-n” — but do we know anything much about the living entities that are robins?

In my case the answer, until recently, was “No.” Large flocks of robins gathering in recent weeks in the cove where we live adjacent to the national park gave me pause to think about them and do a little research and direct observation.

From the mid-Atlantic states westward to Arkansas and southward through southeastern forests and sometimes cities, large wintering roosts may be established, but then the birds shift their concentrations with cold fronts or after nearby food resources are depleted.

The common name is short for “Robin redbreast.” The origin of the second part of that name is obvious, but in reality a mature female’s breast feathers are often more orange than red. Robin is, of course, the diminutive of Robert, being used as either a masculine or feminine given name. The name was initially applied to the English robin (a warbler with a red breast) and transferred by the early settlers to America’s red-breasted bird.

When I started observing birds closely some years ago, I was interested to learn that the robin is a member of the thrush family; that is, it’s a cousin of the two other common thrushes that frequent Western North Carolina: the wood thrush and the bluebird.

Another family member, the hermit thrush, visits all parts of the Smokies region during the winter months (migrating here from the north) and has been extending its breeding range south in recent years. They are common on Mount Mitchell during the summer months.

Swainson’s, Bicknell’s, and gray-cheeked thrushes migrate through our area in spring and fall on their way to and from breeding grounds farther north. These three species are rarely observed except by experienced birders.

Thrushes are large-eyed, slender-billed, strong-legged birds that as adults often display spotted breasts. Robins and bluebirds are, of course, not spot-breasted when mature, but this family characteristic is obvious while the birds are young.

Formerly just a woodland bird, many robins have now abandoned their forest abodes to nest near human residences where shrubs and scattered trees provide protection and easy access to lawns. Still, when driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway or other high-elevation roadways during the breeding season, it’s always surprising how many robins one sees at elevations above 5,000 feet. And when you camp in the spruce-fir region, it’s often the robin’s song that first breaks the pre-dawn silence.

In winter, you can easily spot the large nests that the female constructs in the crotch of a small tree or on the horizontal limb of a larger tree. Inside the nest you will find a mud cup lined with dry grasses and other vegetation.

Robins feed upon various insects, fruits, and berries, but their preferred food — just like the school primers and cartoons say — is the lowly but nutritious earthworm, which they apparently locate by both sight and sound. A robin with a cocked head is actually listening for underground worm movement. And they have been observed using small sticks to rake aside leaves in order to expose worms and insects — an instance of “tool use” normally not associated with birds.

During the winter months — especially January and February — robins gather in large communal flocks that may number a thousand birds. Flocks that frequent our cove periodically (about once every five years or so) roost in a stand of large white oaks high on the ridge so as to catch the first warm rays of the morning sun and gradually work their way into the valley as the sun warms up the slopes.

In the 19th century, Audubon reported that hunters sought out their communal roosts with “bows and arrows, blowpipes, guns, and traps of different sorts,” causing “a sort of jubilee” as they slaughtered the birds for their plump breast meat. One of my great-aunts in piedmont Virginia, who grew up during the lean, hard days following the Civil War always professed a fondness for robin meat. She paid me an allowance for each one I shot with my BB gun and brought to the kitchen. That’s how I got into birding.

Charlotte Hilton Green, in her book Birds of the South (1933), stated that, “The greatest migratory flock of robins ever known was seen near New Hope, Gaston County, North Carolina. Game Warden Ford estimated that there were several millions roosting in the pinewoods. For over a week they wheeled about in the sky, coming to rest in the woods, and in flight they appeared like dark clouds. This great flock was the nearest approach of modern times to the flocks of passenger pigeons that, only a few generations ago, were so numerous that they darkened the earth during their migratory flights .... May the day never come when our robin red-breasts will likewise fail to be numbered among the winged travelers of the skies.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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