A robin was calling in our yard this morning. A sign of spring? Not really, especially with several feet of snow still carpeting the ground dampening our expectations. But the truth is, robins have been around more or less the whole winter. The ones we have had lately near our house are feeding on the last rather mushy fruits on the crab-apple tree beside driveway.
What does give us hope for spring are the intermittent stretches of song of the robins in the neighborhood, particularly on some of the warmer afternoons we’ve had over the last two weeks. None have settled into a full-out, loud, echoing song like they will be doing within a few weeks — the cardinals, fortunately, have been belting these out for a few weeks. Singing birds like these truly are a sign that spring is coming!
Sign of spring or not, robins—or more correctly—American robins—are remarkable and beautiful birds that are too often taken for granted, largely because they are such familiar, widespread, and abundant species across North America. American robins nest from the Arctic south into the highlands of Mexico and from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific. In each season, they are just about everywhere within the U.S. and Canada. It’s no wonder the first European settlers saw them and gave them a name based on a species they knew from back home in Europe. That bird, now called the European robin (the Brits still like to call it just the “robin”) also has a reddish breast but is smaller and is now considered part of the old world flycatcher family rather than the thrush family.
Believe it or not, American robins were not only named by the early settlers to North America, but also eaten by them. Because of the species’ propensity for forming large flocks in migration and winter, especially near fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, it was easier to shoot them then many other birds and animals. We have a fascinating book published in 1867 called The Market Assistant with a proclamation that it contains “a brief description of every article of human food sold in the public markets of the cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn…” On page 175, across from the long and now immensely sad section on the now-extinct passenger pigeon, is the entry for “Robin or red-breasted thrush” in which is written, “Large numbers of these well-known birds are found in our markets, and thousands are also shot by all sorts of sportsmen, in the months of September and October, when they are fat and delicate eating.”
Our beloved American robin is yet another of the many species that benefited from the signing of the Migratory Bird treaty and the subsequent passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act here in the U.S. one hundred years ago. That treaty and its enacting legislation in the U.S. and Canada gave the first-ever conservation protections for songbirds like the American robin and hundreds of other bird species. In this Year of the Bird we remember this historic and still crucial legislation that ensures that birds like the American robin will be around for generations of American people to enjoy!
Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook”. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and the newly published “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao” from Cornell Press.