American Ornithology: Volume 1.

ROBIN. (Turdus Migratorius.)

When berries fail, they disperse themselves over the fields, and along the fences, in search of worms and other insects. Sometimes they will disappear for a week or two, and return again in greater numbers than before; at which time the cities pour out their sportsmen by scores, and the markets are plentifully supplied with them at a cheap rate. In January 1807, two young men, in one excursion after them, shot thirty dozen. In the midst of such devastation, which continued many weeks, and, by accounts, extended from Massachusetts to Maryland, some humane person took advantage of a circumstance common to these birds in winter, to stop the general slaughter. The fruit called poke-berries (Phyto-lacca decandra, Linn.) is a favourite repast with the robin, after they are mellowed by the frost. The juice of the berries is of a beautiful crimson, and they are eaten in such quantities by these birds, that their whole stomachs are strongly tinged with the same red colour. A paragraph appeared in the public papers, intimating that, from the great quantities of these berries which the robins had fed on, they had become unwholesome, and even dangerous food, and that several persons bad suffered by eating of them. The strange appearance of the bowels of the birds seemed to corroborate this account. The demand for and use of them ceased almost instantly; and motives of self-preservation produced at once what all the pleadings of humanity could not effect.[8] When fat, they are in considerable esteem for the table, and probably not inferior to the Turdi of the ancients, which they bestowed so much pains on in feeding and fattening. The young birds are frequently and easily raised, bear the confinement of the cage, feed on bread, fruits, &c., sing well, readily learn to imitate parts of tunes, and are very pleasant and cheerful domestics. In these I have always observed that the orange on the breast is of a much deeper tint, often a dark mahogany or chestnut colour, owing, no doubt, to their food and confinement.

The robin is one of our earliest songsters; even in March, while snow yet dapples the fields, and flocks of them are dispersed about, some few will mount a post or stake of the fence, and make short and frequent attempts at their song.[9] Early in April, they are only to be seen in pairs, and deliver their notes with great earnestness, from the top of some tree detached from the woods.

This song has some resemblance to, and indeed is no bad imitation of, the notes of the thrush or thrasher (Turdus rufus); but, if deficient in point of execution, he pasesses more simplicity, and makes up in zeal what he wants in talent; so that the notes of the robin, in spring, are universally known, and as universally beloved. They are, as it were, the prelude to the grand general concert that is about to burst upon us from woods, fields, and thickets, whitened with blossoms, and breathing fragrance. By the usual association of ideas, we therefore listen with more pleasure to this cheerful bird than to many others possessed of far superior powers, and much greater variety. Even his nest is held more sacred among schoolboys than that of some others; and, while they will exult in plundering a jay's or a cat bird's, a general sentiment of respect prevails on the discovery of a robin's. Whether be owes not some little of this veneration to the well-known and long-established character of his namesake in Britain, by a like association of ideas, I will not pretend to determine. He possesses a good deal of his suavity of manners; and almost always seeks shelter for his young in summer, and subsistence for himself in the extremes of winter, near the habitations of man.

The robin inhabits the whole of North America, from Hudson's Bay to Nootka Sound, and as far south as Georgia, though they rarely breed on this side the mountains farther south than Virginia. Mr Forster says, that about the beginning of May they make their appearance in pairs at the settlements of Hudson’s Bay, at Severn River; and adds a circumstance altogether unworthy of belief, viz., that, at Moose Fort, they build, lay, and hatch, in fourteen days! but that at the former place, four degrees more north, they are said to take twenty-six days.[10] They are also common in Newfoundland, quitting these northern parts in October. The young, during the first season, are spotted with white on the breast, and at that time have a good deal of resemblance to the fieldfare of Europe.

Mr Herne informs us that the red-breasted thrushes are commonly called, at Hudson’s Bay, the red birds—by some, the blackbirds, on account of their note—and by others, the American fieldfares; that they make their appearance at Churchill River about the middle of May, and migrate to the south early in the fall. They are seldom seen there but in pairs; and are never killed for their flesh, except by the Indian boys.[11]

Several authors have asserted that the red-breasted thrush cannot brook the confinement of the cage, and never sings in that state. But, except the mocking bird (Turdus polyglottus), I know of no native bird which is so frequently domesticated, agees better with confinement, or sings in that state more agreeably than the robin. They generally suffer severely in moulting time; yet often live to a considerable age. A lady, who resides near Tarrytown, on the banks of the Hudson, informed me that she raised and kept one of these birds for seventeen years, which sung as well, and looked as sprightly, at that age as ever; but was at last unfortunately destroyed by a cat. The morning is their favourite time for song. In passing through the streets of our large cities on Sunday, in the months of April and May, a little after daybreak, the general silence which usually prevails without at that hour will enable you to distinguish every house where one of these songsters resides, as he makes it then ring with his music.

Not only the plumage of the robin, as of many other birds, is subject to slight periodical changes of colour, but even the legs, feet, and bill; the latter, in the male, being frequently found tipt and ridged for half its length with black. In the depth of winter their plumage is generally best; at which time the full-grown bird, in his most perfect dress, appears as exhibited in the plate.

[8] Governor Drayton, in his “View of South Carolina”, p. 86, observes that “the robins in winter devour the berries of the bead tree (Melia azedarach) in such large quantities, that, after eating of them, they are observed to fall down, and are readily taken. This is ascribed more to tension from abundant eating, than from any deleterious qualities of the plant.” The fact, however, is, that they are literally choked, many of the berries being too large to be swallowed.[return]

[9] “The male is one of the loudest and most assiduous of the songsters that frequent the fur countries, beginning his chant immediately on his anival. Within the arctic circle, the woods are silent in the bright light of noonday; but, towards midnight, when the sun travels near the horizon, and the shades of the forest are lengthened, the concert commences, and continues till six or seven in the morning.” Thus speaks Dr Richardson, in the “Northern Zoology”, regarding the song of this bird; and he further adds, regarding, the breeding and geographical range:—“Its nests were observed, by the last Northern expedition, conducted by Captain Sir J. Franklin, as high as the 67th parallel of latitude. It arrives on the Missouri, in lat. 41½°, from the eastward, on the 11th of April; and in the course of its northerly movement, reaches Severn River, in Hudson's Bay, about a fortnight later. Its first appearance at Carlton House, in the year 1827, in lat. 53°, was on the 22d April. In the same season it reached Fort Chippewyan, in lat. 55¾°, on the 7th of May; and Fort Franklin, in lat. 65°, on the 20th of that month. Those that build their nests in the 54th parallel of latitude, begin to hatch in the end of May; but 11° farther to the north, that event is deferred till the 11th of June. The snow, even then, partially covers the ground; but there are, in those high latitudes, abundance of the berries of Vaccinium uliginosum and Vitis idea, Arbutus alpina, Empetrum nigrum, and of some other plants, which, after having been frozen up all winter, are exposed to the first melting of the snows, full of juice, and in high flavour: shortly after, the parents obtain abundance of grubs for their callow young.”

We thus see the extreme regularity with which the migrations are performed, and cannot too much admire the power which enables them to perceive, and calculate so exactly, the time required for their journey to the climates best suited to their duties at that season. We also see another wonderful provision, both for the migratory species and those which subsist as they best can during the winter, in the preservation of the berries and fruits fresh and juicy under the snow. Were it not for this, the ground, on the melting of its covering, would present a more desolate appearance than in the extremest storms of winter, and all animal life would inevitably perish for want of food before the various and abundant plants could flower and perfect their fruits.—Ed.[return]

[10] Phil. Trans. lxii. 399.[return]

[11] Journey to the Northern Ocean, p. 418, 4to, Lond. 1795.[return]