The American Robin

Robins are a very controversial bird in my household. My husband is from the United Kingdom and to him a Robin is a very different bird. The Robin Red Breast of Europe is a much smaller bird than the American Robin, measuring about the same size as a Chickadee. They are tiny and cute and they are the United Kingdom’s unofficial Christmas card bird, much like Cardinals are on many holiday cards in the United States. For more information and images of a European Robin, you can visit: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/robin/

Since we live in America, we will ignore my husband’s protests that this huge, gawky bird ISN’T a “real” Robin, and now focus on the American Robin in all its glory. As Apollo is the bringer of the sun, the Robin is given credit for being the bringer of Spring each year. When you start to see Robins, winter is nearly over. This is particularly funny as in most of the United States at least some of the Robin population doesn’t migrate. Others, particular those living in Canada, do migrate South toward Central America.

The American Robin is actually in the Thrush family. He stands much taller than his European doppelganger, between nine and eleven inches. Robins are commonly seen in parks, forests and backyards, although they are not seed eaters so they will not be attracted to most feeders. Their diet is mostly worms and other invertebrates with some berries or fruit. One of their many well-known poses is to stand still and cock their heads. This cocking of the head is usually attributed to listening for worm vibrations. Actually their eyes are set too far back in their heads and they must turn their heads at a cocked angle to see. They don’t listen for their prey at all.

Some people might disagree, but you can tell the males and females apart. Both have the tell-tale red/orange chest but the male’s chest is much fuller and more vibrant. The male has a gray back and dark gray/black cap on his head. Look for the white around his eye and the streaks of white on his neck. The female is a bit duller all around and her head is lighter gray. Besides their childish behavior, the juveniles are easily distinguished by their speckled chest, usually framed by some orangy feathers around the edge.

Robins usually have two broods, of three to five eggs. These eggs are almost as familiar to us as the Robin itself, a light blue egg sometimes with brown speckles. They are in fact the origin of the color “Robin’s Egg Blue.” Perhaps they and their color are so familiar to us because their hatched remnants can often be found in yards and on porches. In nature Robins typically build their mud and grass lined nests in trees or shrubs. However, they also like porch or roof beams, and exposed foundations, making them a common, if uninvited tenant of human dwellings. This can at times prove difficult as they are very territorial. When protecting their nest they know no fear and have been known to swoop down out of their nests with a single warning cry, not unlike a plane appearing out of the clouds in a WWII movie. My parents had a Robin settle in their porch one summer. After the eggs were laid she (females usually incubate while the males feed the first set of hatchlings) was very touchy. My father is a really early riser, and likes to have his coffee on the porch in the fresh air. That summer, forever marked as the summer of the Robin in my mind, was a summer of early mornings for all of us, as the Robin dive-bombed at my father almost every morning, usually resulting in spilled coffee and a string of obscenities piercing the pure morning stillness. I will give him credit. He let her hatch and raiser her babies before he removed the nest. But you can be sure, no nest of any kind has been allowed in that particular corner since. Any sign of nesting activity and up the ladder he goes.

The Color Orange in the Bird World

The color orange could never be accused of subtly. A warm color, bright and vivid, orange takes on many cultural associations. The color of road work signs and traffic cones, it promotes visibility and denotes danger. There is a reason prison jumpsuits and hunting camouflage are orange. But it also makes us think of sunny days and sweet fruit. Around this time of year, it also makes us think of pumpkins and Halloween.

Coloring in the bird world is thought to have evolved to both encourage mating and promote survival through camouflage. Females of many species are duller in color to protect them from predators and promote the survival of the species. Along the same lines, the males of many species have developed very bright coloring to attract females to mate with them. Feather colors are created one of two ways, through pigment or light refraction from the physical structure of the feathers. Some multicolored birds have both occurring at the same time.

It is easy to see that orange occurring in the bird world is also about visibility. While we often associate the brightest feathers with exotic habitats, we can still find evidence of orange in our own backyards. The Baltimore Oriole serves as the primary example. While the male is much brighter, both the male and female Baltimore Orioles are primarily orange. Orange may be a color that attracts them to more than just prospective mates, as they are also known to eat oranges and be attracted to orange-colored feeders.

An orange belly is a prominent feature of another backyard regular, the American Robin. Though not as bright a shade of orange as found on the Baltimore Oriole, the rusty-orange of the Robin certainly attracts the eye. Female Robins often have paler bellies than their mates, but both males and females demand attention. The Robin’s rusty belly not only differentiates it from other Thrushes, but is its most distinctive feature.

The Barn Swallow demonstrates still another shade of orange found in plumage. He sports a peachy orange belly, reminiscent of a creamiscle, which contrasts with the darker blue of his back and wings.

Thinking about birds in relation to their color allows for a new perspective. Understanding the purpose of their coloring allows us to appreciate it for more than just aesthetic beauty. Nature has certainly provides us with a wide and varied palette to enjoy.

Additional Sources:

https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/blog/eureka-lab/mates-or-survival-which-explains-bird%E2%80%99s-color

Autumn in the Celery Farms

The Autumn is one of my favorite times to visit the Celery Farms. The air is usually crisp, the temperate is usually perfect for a leisurely stroll, and if you hit it just right, the trees around the lake just explode with color.

Taking advantage of a rare weekday off, I headed to the Celery Farms mid-morning and had it more to myself than I usually do. The weather and light couldn’t have been more perfect. I had all the time in the world, so I sat on benches, went up every platform and even made a second loop on the trail.

Waterfowl was the main attraction. There were all kinds of birds taking advantage of the water. Most prominent due to their size, were four Muted Swans, whose pure white was such a stunning contrast to the palette of colors behind them.

Canada Geese and Mallards were present, as they usually are, but with the aid of my telephoto lens I noticed that some of the ducks looked different, and their bills seemed longer. Once I got a good look at the male, I confirmed it, Northern Shovellers. It was really amazing I was able to see them at all, or their fronts at any rate. As soon as they got a breath of air, they were right back in the water, butts in the air. I can tell you, one duck butt looks much like the next.

Another smaller bird was also in the water. Swimming solo, it was so small my camera had trouble focusing on it. The largest challenge to photographing it was that it kept submerging and would pop up somewhere just beyond where I expected it to be. Quite the little swimmer. My photos didn’t come out as clear as I would have liked, but I am fairly certain it was a Pied-Billed Grebe.

Besides the water birds, I was able to spot several others as I made my way around the trail. One Robin even decided to pose for me, changing the position of his head back and forth like a supermodel in front of a lovely Autumn leaf backdrop. A Red-Bellied Woodpecker was likewise inclined.

While sitting on one of the platforms, a very fluffy and slightly frazzled looking Sparrow (Song Sparrow I think) was so intent of getting all the berries on the floor that he came right up by me. I couldn’t even photograph him with my lens, he was too close. We hung out together for quite a while. He wasn’t phased by my presence in the slightest. You could almost hear his inner monologue, “…eat the berries…there’s a berry! Eat the berry…need some more berries…there’s a berry!” as he zigzagged along the platform floor.

Some less common sightings for me on this particular walk were a female Ruby-Crowned Kinglet and a female Magnolia Warbler. I think both the decreased vegetation and my meandering pace helped me spot them, and both birds stayed in place long enough for a few nice shots.

A deer crossed my path as well. It wouldn’t be a day at the Celery Farms, no matter what season, if you didn’t see at least one deer.