American Birds

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

As Independence Day approaches, I’m thinking, "Why not do a series of articles on birds with ‘American’ in their name?" And so this is the first of three articles on American birds, starting with perhaps the best known of them all – the American Robin. I’ll leave you to anticipate what the remaining two will be.

Now, almost anyone can recognize a robin. It is often thought of to be a sign of spring and yet on Nantucket, it is still common in winter. Since everyone is familiar with them, they can be used as a standard. When someone describes an unknown bird to us, we often respond, "How does it compare in size to a robin?" The robin makes a good birding yardstick, being ten inches from beak to tail. The crow, another standard, is 20.

Actually, our robins were named by homesick, early English settlers, who indeed, called any bird with even a hint of russet on it, a robin. It mattered little that their European ‘robin red-breast’ is actually a flycatcher rather than a thrush like our robin. Bluebirds were also called ‘robins’. Towhees became ‘ground robins’. Ruddy-breasted shorebirds like the dowitcher became ‘robin snipe’. And the beat goes on. Our robin is really a close relative of the European Blackbird, a la "four and twenty". But American blackbirds are in yet another family. Hey, this is getting confusing, and it’s just basic birding!

It gets worse -- I mentioned that robins are actually a thrushes. Thrushes are nondescript brown birds with spotted breasts -- not much like a robin. The main features that strike you on a robin are their rusty red breasts, gray backs and tails. You can tell a male robin because the head and nape are black rather than gray. So you can tell the boys from the girls, but thrush-like – not really.

The trick is to find a youngster, and at this time a year, we often come upon them, seemingly abandoned on the ground and chirping mightily. If you look closely, you’ll see evidence of their thrush background. These juvenal robins are thoroughly spotted underneath, and look quite thrushy. As the season moves on, they molt the spots away and acquire an adult look. Young bluebirds also go through this process.

But our robin red-breasts are best known for their songs. The ‘Cheeriup-Cheerily’ call is a part of almost every American’s early morning experience. They are among the earliest birds to sing in the morning and their voices make up a large part of what is known as the dawn chorus. I first experienced this when I was out west in the Air Force, driving a convertible to work when there was just a hint of color in the sky. For miles I listened to the wonderful chorale of the robins above me. It was and still is, quite ethereal.

The early ornithologist, William Brewster, described the chorus as "a great wave of song which sweeps overhead every morning during the breeding season in the darkness before daylight, and continues on, westward, keeping pace with the sun, but beginning far in advance of its light, as it moves across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific." It is like a vocal sunrise.

On our island, American Robins are ‘very common’ in the summer and just ‘common’ the rest of the year. They nest from early April until early August, and usually raise two families. The male assumes parental duties when the chicks leave the nest, because generally the female is already starting to lay and incubate a second brood.

Of course our winter robins are different birds, having nested way up north, perhaps in Newfoundland. There is a black-backed subspecies which summers at the most northern extremes that we always watch for in coldest months. During the winter, the robin’s diet changes to almost completely fruit, cedar berries being a Nantucket favorite.

People often call me in mid-winter, thrilled to have seen a robin, thinking it is a sign that spring is on the way. "I’ve seen the biggest robin," I hear. They think it must be a giant. Any bird looks huge because in the cold, they raise their feathers to leave an insulating air pocket underneath. There’s still a normal-sized robin in there.

Our increasing winter robin populations are another indicator of global warming. In the 50’s and 60’s we never saw more than 100 on a Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Since then the numbers have continually risen. In 2003, we found over 3,000 robins during Nantucket’s CBC. The signs of climate change are everywhere, if we but look for them.

The robin dawn chorus you are hearing now goes on until early August when nesting is completed. At this time of year, the main show is between four and five a.m. That’s pretty early for most, but really the best time of day to enjoy the birds. Listen from your window and be inspired.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

The Maria Mitchell Association sponsors bird walks every Saturday, leaving at 8 a.m., and on Tuesday and Thursday, starting at 6:30 a.m., all leaving from the Hinchman House on at the corner of Milk and Vestal St. There is a fee. Call 228-9198 for more information.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.