Of a Feather: The Bird Everyone Knows | lifestyles

Even before I called myself a bird watcher, I was able to identify a robin. Robins want to be noticed and watched. They are relatively large birds, 10 inches long with a wingspan of almost 18 inches. In addition, they forage outdoors, often on well-manicured lawns, where they search for worms and other invertebrates by hopping about (not walking), frequently pausing as if listening (but actually looking), and then eagerly pouncing beak first towards their prey.

You can observe robin behavior from the comfort of your own home. They have a strong tendency to build their nests where humans can easily see them. A couple perched in a hanging basket of plants on our porch. This was quite inconvenient since we ran a bed and breakfast and one of the attractions was designed to sit on the front porch and watch the sleepy small town life.

However, robins are wild birds. Once they have eggs, they cackle imperiously at nearby humans. As their young grow, their commitment to the brood increases and they defend it with escalating aggression. Several guests were forced to hastily retreat from the porch after being convincingly threatened.

Robins also defend their territories from interfering neighbors with a range of increasingly confrontational behaviors. The males sing continuously during the breeding season. A neighborhood of multiple connected Robin lawns can be a veritable cacophony of upbeat songs. Should a neighboring robin venture near the invisible border between the territories, the home team (the females have been known to participate) will advance with vocal threats. The Shrill One Pleek Pleek sounds exactly like it is: a warning. Should the enemy have the audacity to actually intrude, the interaction devolves into a high-velocity chase akin to World War I dogfights, which can culminate in a knock-down and tow fight on the lawn.

This sort of antics draws the attention of even the non-birder, let alone the casual birder. In addition, the bird is “all fieldmark”; it’s hard to confuse Turdus migratorius for another species. Here in the United States, the slate gray extends from the tail, back, and wings to the nape (back of the head). The front of the head is charcoal black and the beak is bright yellow. The males have a literally brick-red chest and belly, and the white under the tail flashes when they tilt in flight. The females are quite similar, but with a noticeably lighter reddish-brown breast and lighter gray back.

While the robin’s relationship to the eastern thrush can be discerned by the similarity of their songs – although that of the thrush is less distinct and less varied – and the common brick red on the chest, they differ so much from the “brown thrushes”, the novices may be surprised to learn that they are in the same family. However, a closer look reveals the relationship. All thrushes have long, powerful legs and hop rather than walk. Their calculations are all similar too; They are essentially tubular, very straight, and rapidly tapering to a sharp point. It seems like an all-purpose tool, and in fact, thrushes have a Catholic diet, meaning they eat almost anything.

The brown or catharus Thrushes – Veery, Hermit, Swainson’s et al. – appear to be an example of neoteny or rejuvenation. Their adult plumage resembles the juvenile plumage of the Turdus throttles. Because robins so often build their nests right in our gardens, we often see their young at different stages of development. Before the first molt, robins’ breasts are striped very much like those of European robins catharus Adult. Ie, catharus Thrushes have a permanent juvenile plumage.

There are several others Turdus species in Latin America, and we also get rare visits from a Palaearctic Species. The Fieldfare (T.pilaris) ranges from eastern Siberia across Europe and north-west to Iceland. Individual birds are occasionally spotted among flocks of robins migrating south from eastern Canada.

These sea robins are also distinctive in appearance and have occasionally been treated as a subspecies. Arthur Cleveland Bent calls them “Black Backed Robins” in his 1949 “Life Histories of North American Thrushes, Kinglets, and their Allies” (T. migratorius nigrideus). Sibley includes an illustration of this variant; he shows the entire head charcoal black (instead of the gray nape) and the back and wings a darker gray. Bent describes them as historically restricted to Newfoundland, but more recently they have been reported to be present in Labrador as well.

Many of these northern robins—both the blackback and the more familiar species—migrate south in the fall. But unlike species of Neotropical origin such as wood warblers, tanagers and orioles, they do not retreat to warmer climes. Instead, some birds stay behind and overwinter near their breeding grounds. Others simply shift their foraging several hundred miles south, or south and east, away from the colder continental interior. In most of the United States, except for the far northern plains and northern Appalachia, robins are year-round residents.

Here their Catholic diet serves them well. Throughout the winter I saw flocks of robins in my town, invariably congregating around fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. While they focus on invertebrates in spring and summer, robins (and thrushes) switch to a mostly fruity diet with an added seed in winter. While thrushes are notorious nitwits when it comes to braving the cold, robins are pretty hardy. They are also strong fliers, quickly leaving a winter feeding area when food runs out or the weather turns absurd.

Although familiar, robins are fascinating. A friend who studied her insisted on talking about it at length, like a proud parent boasting about his brilliant offspring. Once he backed his car into a light pole near my house, distracted by a robin’s antics on our lawn.

Bill Chaisson has been a bird watcher since he was 10 years old. He was the former editor-in-chief of the Eagle Times and now lives and works in the town of Wilmot. Contact him at wpchaisson@gmail.com.


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