Robin Red-Breast

458px-american_robinIn one native folktale, Robin and Chickadee chased Bear through the heavens (as stars), armed with bows and arrows. Robin struck the killing shot, and was spattered with Bear’s blood. He managed to shake off most of it; only his breast remained red. The rest of it was cast into the red autumn leaves of the maple tree.

But fall is a whole six months off right now, mercifully, and we have summer and spring first, as heralded by Robin’s bear-blood spattered chest.

Robins are, if you can believe it, not actually robins. Early settlers to North American thought they looked like English robins and so gave them the name, but the American robin is actually a thrush. They eat small insects, nuts and berries, and are one of the first birds to return to their northern ranges and begin breeding in the spring. Sometimes, a female robin will build and incubate a second nest of eggs while the first nest is still maturing; in those cases, the father will take over the duties of the first nest until they become independent.

Last week I saw my first red-breasted robin of spring; in a couple of weeks the nesting will begin, and then I’ll keep my eyes open for the first fragile pale blue shell fragments. In the meantime, robins have been a theme of North American poets and storytellers since the settlers first landed, like Emily Dickinson’s poem 348:

I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I’m some accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though

I thought if I could only live
Till that first Shout got by
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me

I dared not meet the Daffodils
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own

I wished the Grass would hurry
So when ’twas time to see
He’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch to look at me

I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?

They’re here, though; not a creature failed
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me
The Queen of Calvary

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgement
Of their unthinking Drums

According to Elizabeth Kolbert’s book Field Notes from a Catastrophe, in the last few years, thanks to climate change, robins have started migrating far enough north to encounter native populations who have never seen them before, and have no name for it. Robin might once have chased Bear through the skies, but he is now wandering a little too far from home.

7 thoughts on “Robin Red-Breast”

  1. now i need to go look up an English robin. i feel a little, uh, robbed?

    something fascinating to me about the weird legacies of English that until recently your opener would have been about (mis-named) “Indians” and (mis-named) “robins.”

  2. Where I live (Central Oregon), the robins stay year-round. So do the doves. Actually I read that some families (not species but families) of doves migrate and some stay. Maybe that’s true of robins, too.

    1. Yep, some robins migrate and some over-winter; the proportion of each depends on how far north you go. The farther north, the fewer who over-winter and the more who migrate. You’re farther south than I am, so it doesn’t surprise me that you see more of them in the winter.

  3. Actually I am one degree of latitude further north than you. But the weather doesn’t know it — winter’s definitely harsher for you.

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