Consider the robin. We rarely do. This is strange, for she is a marvel and a beauty, and she is wonderfully on display in New England at this verdant time of year.
What is it about this ubiquitous bird that we love, but that does not command our attention the way other species do like, say, the hummingbird?
For many, the robin’s singular attraction is her broad, bulging, russet breast from which she gets her familiar name. (Her formal name is American robin, and her unfortunate Linnaean name is Turdus migratorius.) I love that sloping expanse and how it exudes the suggestion of health. Sometimes people look at a buxom bird and say she has eggs, but she does not carry her eggs in her breast. She keeps them up under her back. That bulge behind her breast is her crop, which is decidedly less poetic, but just as important to the bird.
While dispensing with myths, let us set aside the notion that robins find worms by listening for them, or sensing their vibrations in their feet. They do nothing of the sort. To catch a worm, a robin must see it. A completely underground worm is safe from robins. When a robin cocks her head as if putting her ear to the ground, what she’s really doing is pointing her eye at something moving which, if she is quick, may soon add to the bulge of her breast.
Nothing suggests spring’s renewal so much as a fragment of a robin’s egg on the grass. Its blue is unique. It is soft, pale, the archetypal pastel. We name a color after it. Say “robin’s egg blue,” and everyone understands. A robin’s egg weighs about 18 grams, and she usually lays four at a time, which is pretty close to half her own body’s weight. Imagine a typical soccer mom giving birth to 20-pound quadruplets!
One could go on at length about remarkable robin facts, for remarkable creatures they are. But sometimes more facts means less poetry, and we are the less for it. P.D. Eastman’s book, Are You My Mother?, is a classic, and a source of childhood delight for millions. Yet science knows that robin chicks fledge in about two weeks, and a mother will hatch four broods in a season. No such maternal bond exists as portrayed by Eastman. But which seems more relevant when we peer into a soft nest woven of dry grass, and see the four blue jewels glowing inside?
We equate robins with spring, although they can be seen in New England all year around. Tradition has it that marking the first robin one sees in the spring brings good luck. Our canonical New England poetess Emily Dickinson, almost a bird herself, used the robin in spring for a different purpose, to represent a seasonal grief:
“I dreaded that first robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I’m accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though -”
Robins don’t run, they hop. They don’t sing, they tweet. One can read all manner of scholarly and overserious descriptions of the bird’s behavior, but I like best the one by Jackson Day, which has stood the test of time:
“He rocks in the tree tops all day long
Hoppin’ and a-boppin’ and singing his song
All the little birdies on Jaybird Street
Love to hear the robin go tweet tweet tweet”
The American robin is unendangered. How often do we get to say that? There are an estimated 320 million of them. It is a hallmark of nature to produce miracles in profusion. Only man equates wonder with rarity. Worse, only with man does familiarity breed contempt. We can resist this tendency. Stop and smile the next time you see a robin hoppin’ and a-boppin,’ or hear one going tweet tweet tweet. Turdus migratorius, the American robin, the good old, familiar robin red breast, is an expression of joy everywhere among us. She is meant for our delight.
Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife. He has three adult children. Chris welcomes reader feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.