Robins are the most familiar of our thrushes: large and visible, comfortable in both human neighborhoods and forests, widespread and abundant across the country, and present all year round in much of it, including here in the Bay Area. Although they seem to have gathered an association with spring in many people’s minds, this really only holds true as a migratory phenomenon in much colder areas – here we have more robins in winter as resident populations are swelled by an influx of birds from colder regions to the north or from higher elevations.
You know what a robin looks like close up: orange-red breast, dark back, a bit of whitish on the throat. They’re everywhere and easy to recognize, making them a good bird to start getting to know better: when you see someone repeatedly, the natural next step in benevolent relations is not to merely rest content with recognition, but to grow in sympathy and appreciation of someone’s unique being. A reasonable progression, after the recognition of a face, is recognition of a voice, and few birds are better suited for breaking the auditory barrier between the avian and the human than the robin, possessed of both distinctive calls and a superlative spring song.
The calls of robins are easily remarked in winter, when these birds gather in talkative flocks. Walk through nearly any neighborhood and look for groups of robins in trees; they will gather at berry-bearing plants, and often seem to gravitate to any taller pines the neighborhood may possess for evening-to-morning roost sites. And from any flock of robins will come a steady garrulous clucking, somewhat chicken-like, but punctuated by periodic sudden whinnies or unhumorous but forceful chuckles – hehehehe! If you don’t know these calls already, you can hear them at Cornell’s All About Birds.
And then there’s their spring song. Like all birdsong, the primary functions of robin song are to declare territories and demonstrate a male’s fitness to potential mates and rivals. Robins incline to both the more voluble and more musical end of the singing spectrum, singing for a long part of the year and a long part of the day (in spring, the neighborhood robin is often one of the first sounds to be heard at dawn), and doing so with a melodious panache that seems to have historically struck almost every conscious human as recognizably fine. Perhaps the growing prevalence of private soundtracks of music and conversation embedded in one’s ears or contained within one’s car have contributed to the decline of robin-listening among your standard civilized man and woman, rendering the conversation of even this most neighborly of birds something seemingly reserved for the officially bird-enthused.
Sure, in the old days, an enthusiastic naturalist might privately exclaim:
It sings with power, like a bird of great faith that sees the bright future through the dark present, to reassure the race of man, like one to whom many talents were given and who will improve its talents. They are sounds to make a dying man live.
– Thoreau, The Journal, April 21, 1852
And although we tend to be a little more restrained these days, we can imagine birders waxing lyrical about robin song. But an example of what I think has diminished, even within more or less modern lifetimes, is the way a genre as universal as popular song could be built around familiarity with this voice:
When the red, red robin
Comes bob, bob, bobbin along, along,
There’ll be no more sobbin’
When he starts throbbin’
His old sweet song:
Wake up, wake up, you sleepy head
Get up, get up, get out of bed,
Cheer up, cheer up, The sun is red
Live, love, laugh and be happy!
– Harry M. Woods, 1926
Does such a subject and tone seem quaint, simplistic, unsophisticated to the point of chipper, sterile conformity? There may be some truth in such a charge; I admit that we couldn’t simply go back to such material as our standard lyrical fare. But still, when I hear Louis Armstrong do his best embodiment of robin-like faith and optimism, I feel like I’m hearing that same genuine and ineffable faith that Thoreau heard another hundred years before, and that others will hear a hundred years after our time.
A last note on the implications of long-accustomed coexistence with humans: the name. “Robin” is not in high popularity these days as a commonly encountered appellation, but it is the form of Robert undoubtedly most apropos to a perky general partner in multi-species existence. If Robin Hood had tried to publicize his exploits under the nom de guerre of Robert Hood or Bob Hood, it just wouldn’t have worked, wouldn’t have conveyed that same chipper, blithe disregard of authority that “Robin” does. I can’t help feeling a bit of the same conviviality when dealing with our bird in question here. We have, after all, many birds that have inherited bird names of etymological antiquity, or been classified with unexceptional appellations of orthodox description, onomatopoeic neologisms, and other such disparate strands that make up the shifting body of the English language, but very few that have managed to hold intact to a person’s name, which is to say a people’s name and a personable name, a name that common everyday folk back in England would bestow with everyday familiarity on their local Robin, and which new arrivals in New England would similarly bestow upon their new red-breasted acquaintance. If you are seeking greater intimacy with our local birds, you would do well to begin with one with whom, despite our many failings, we have managed to keep on familiar first name terms.