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Some notes on (American) Robins

July 12, 2013

Bookish Birders! I’m a little bit in love with Diana Wells’ fabulous 100 Birds and How They Got Their NamesBird names are curious, and frequently downright odd. I mean a Red-winged Blackbird mostly makes sense — but wouldn’t Red-patched Blackbird make more sense? After all the wings are only 20% red. But so it is.

Who are these Robins — these harbingers of Spring? Named Turdus migratorius by Linnaeus, American Robins are literally “migrating thrushes.” In fact, the name Robin seems to be a misnomer (according to John Woolman’s 18th century primer about robins), since European Robins (Erithacus rubecula) aren’t even real thrushes; the only thing both New and Old world Robins have in common is their red breast.

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

I’m still shocked to learn that the taxonomies we take for granted as infallible — is it the Latin that endows them with gravitas? — are so often the result of human error. I’m only now starting to understand the real meaning of “natural history” — indeed, these names tell stories and provide us with layers of beliefs to sift through. Every species delivers a narrative of its very own. And like any history, it’s very much a work in progress, a tale being woven, configured from various perspectives, unraveled, and reimagined — so very much alive.

And the Robin’s name? It turns out to be a diminutive of Robert and apparently derives from the prefix Rob– (hrod in Old Germanic, which means “fame”) and the Old French suffix -in (a diminutive suffix).

And how is it that Robins feast on earthworms? Wells’ enlightening explanation is that settlers reintroduced “Lumbricidae worms” to North America (they’d disappeared during the ice age). The American Robin population increased in response to the earth worm proliferation. For those of you seeking fabulous robin & earthworm related factoids, Wells informs us that a baby robin can consume 14 feet of earthworms in a single day. Slightly repulsive, yet deeply admirable.

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