Friday, March 27, 2009

Little Robin Redbreast

American Robin family. Photo by Don Bartram.

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.

– Mother Goose

The subject of myth and folklore, the robin has been popular in literature worldwide for hundreds of years. The robin is often viewed as a symbol of peace, charity and compassion and the origin of its red breast has inspired countless tales. There is one story of how the robin plucked a thorn from the crown that pierced Jesus’ forehead as he was on his way to be crucified, accidentally piercing his own breast, and staining his feathers red. Another tale tells that the robin’s breast was singed while the bird was fanning the fire to warm baby Jesus.

Robins are often viewed as indicators of spring. Their presence is a sure sign that soon birdsong will fill the air, trees and shrubs will burst forth with verdant vegetation, and all life will be renewed. They are viewed as a peaceful bird, minding their own business, pulling up worms, and caring for their families. Their image graces countless note cards, Christmas cards, and advertisements, a symbol that all is well. But, are fact and fiction one in the same with regard to the robin?

Our American Robin (Turdus migratorius), the bird that we see gracing cards, is actually a member of the thrush family (Turdidae), and closely related to bluebirds, mockingbirds, and Townsend’s Solitaire. It is found throughout North America, although the northernmost populations migrate south for the winter. It is not the bird of European literature. To the rest of the world, robins are small members of the flycatcher family. The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), subject of much literature, is a small insect-eating songbird now considered to be an Old World flycatcher (Muscicapidae). That robin has a bright orange breast instead of red, and is found across Europe, east to Western Siberia and south to North Africa. The term Robin also is given to other species of birds with red breasts, including the Australian red robins of the genus Petroica, which are more closely related to crows.

Now that you are thoroughly numbed by the above paragraph and nodding off toward an extended nap, let’s think about the peaceful part. In general, we rarely see more than one or two robins and their families hopping about in our yards during the spring and summer. That’s because the male of the pair has ferociously defended your yard from all challengers. Only he and his mate can peacefully occupy that territory. This is not to say that there will be no challenges from others, for each robin must maintain enough precious habitat with an adequate food supply and interlopers lurk, waiting for their chance, that moment of inattention when Daddy Robin is looking the other way and the mealworm pan is left unattended.

Earlier this month, I watched a fierce battle over the less than desirable territory of my back yard (at least in my opinion). The two males stabbed with their beaks and grabbed with their feet until one fell from high in the elm tree to land on the ground on his back. That must have hurt! A few days later, I found a dead male in the front yard. Could they have battled to the death? It is a simple matter of survival for the male, his mate, and their offspring. And raise families, they do. A pair of robins can produce up to three clutches of young a year.

Then, there is the myth that robins are harbingers of spring. While this is true for those who live in northern states and Canada, New Mexico actually has far more robins during the winter than the breeding season. Those northern robins head south in search of food. It seems logical that xeric New Mexico cannot hold enough worms and other insects to feed all those wintering robins. So, some other food source must be the attractant. Those of you who have towering Russian olives in your yard, or a tangle of pyracantha with 6" thorns just waiting to shred your skin are the reason the robins thrive in our arid landscape. Berries are a vital part of their diet and both pyracantha and Russian olive hold their berries until they are eaten.

Robins thrive in an urban environment like your back yard. Populations appear stable or are increasing throughout their range. But, because the robin often feeds on insects in lawns, it is vulnerable to pesticide poisoning and can be an important indicator of chemical pollution. So, next time you are worried about that perfect lawn, do your wallet and a bird a favor and skip the pesticide company.

I was once lucky enough to have pair of robins build their nest on my front porch and I was able to spy on them from the safety of the bedroom window, in essence having a front row seat to watch the antics, fun for me but deadly serious to them. Even though they are a common bird, they can be uncommonly entertaining. I found a 10 minute film clip that shows robin family rasing a family from start to finish. Check it out.

No comments: