The American Robin is aptly named. It breeds in Canada and it winters in Mexico, but its year round range is nearly 1:1 with the contiguous United States. It’s name is derived from a species called the European Robin, I guess because the guy who named the American Robin thought the two bore a resemblance. I’m not sure I see it, it’s really just a similar shade of orange. Which, fair enough, there’s not a ton of orange birds. But looking at the two side by side, the plumage and body shape are entirely different.
Nevertheless, “robin” is a delightful, simple, and iconic bird name. They’re symbols of spring, they’re some of the most well known and commonly identified birds, and they’re recognized as a state bird by three different American states. Their eggs even have their own color. These birds are worth every bit of the hype, never disappointing me as I watch them from my bench in Wacouta Commons. Plucking worms out from the dirt, running across the grass with their little feet, and swooping low near the sidewalks between trees and light posts, robins are excellent neighbors in urban and suburban areas.
What makes them so easily identifiable? Their appearance might be memorable, but it’s certainly not the most memorable. Think of a blue jay or a cardinal, the kind of bird that could speed by in a blur but just from the color you’d know exactly what you saw. Robins don’t have that kind of iconic visual. I’ve had several instances of seeing a bird fly by and turning to see if it’d been a small robin or a sparrow, or even a starling.
You need to get a good look at a robin, even if just for a moment, to properly identify it. But it turns out, it’s not hard at all to get a good look. For one thing, they’re notably bigger than sparrows and most songbirds: their height ranges from 5.5”-6.9”, a head taller than the Northern Cardinal which stands at 4.3”-5.1”, and gargantuan next to the their usual foraging buddies the House Sparrow, which stands at a pathetic 2.0–2.6 inches. If you’re walking around a park, it might be hard to tell sparrows apart from finches, but it isn’t hard to spot the robins. Their body shape is also distinctly upright compared to most common perching birds, showing off their notable orange underbelly.
Another huge factor that makes them so identifiable is also that they love to forage on the ground. Worms are the prized delicacy of robins, which makes them regular customers of lawns. We can't say the same for other visually distinct songbirds like blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, or goldfinches. If you don’t have a feeder, it can be a rare sight to spot those birds fluttering between tree branches or telephone lines. A robin however will happily jaunt around in the open, running around in front of your house or in the park. At Wacouta Commons, I’ve heard blue jays, but they’ve never shown themselves. Robins possess no such shyness.
So it’s pretty easy, and likely, to catch a good look at a foraging robin, and to ID it as a robin once you do. This, combined with their range across the entire country, makes them incredibly popular. It doesn’t hurt that they’re adorable: juveniles especially have a plump look to them, and their bright yellow beaks stick out like a textbook example of a bird. Despite being everywhere, I never tire of seeing these cute neighbors plod about.
Where else do we see robins? Thanks to DC Comics, the bird has also become synonymous with a famous crime fighting duo. Batman’s sidekick Robin, originally his ward Dick Grayson but currently his biological son Damian Wayne, is an iconic comics character and one that changed the landscape of comics entirely. Not only did he spawn a whole new trend of dynamic duos and plucky sidekicks, but he also doubled the sales of Batman and helped turn him into DC’s biggest hero. We’ve also seen the character on the screen in Batman & Robin, Titans, Teen Titans, Teen Titans Go!, and Young Justice. In a few years, Robin will finally be in a feature film again as Damian Wayne takes on the mantle in Andy Muschetti’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
Sadly, our adorable bird can only take partial credit for this character. His name is actually derived from Robin Hood, and that character’s name simply comes from a common English diminutive name at the time. Even if Robin Hood had been named after the birds, it would have been in reference to the aforementioned European Robin, an unrelated species. Dick Grayson and our orange worm eaters have become closely associated in modern culture, but that’s certainly not how it started out. Eventually, they used a songbird emblem to represent the Robin crime fighting mantle, and have used the bird as imagery for the character many times.
You know who else has used the robin as imagery? Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all of whom anointed the robin as their state bird. Three almost seems low for such a common creature, but given that the House Sparrow represents zero states there might simply be diminishing returns on population size. Eventually, people take robins for granted. It’s not as big of a crime as the blue jay representing zero states, and I’d even push for Wisconsin to dump the robin in favor of the Sandhill Crane, but those are both topics for another day. What matters is that some legislatures saw in the robin what I see: a cool guy worth celebrating.
So next time you see an American Robin scampering across a field of grass, give it a quick round of applause for being so popular and awesome.