It’s February, which in the Northern hemisphere qualifies as being just about half way between Christmas and spring. So it’s appropriate to talk about robins right now. In some places, they are symbols of Christmas, and in others they are a sign of spring. Either way, the copper-chested birds are a cheery site to behold. Despite their burnt orange coloring, the birds were originally known as Robin Redbreasts–because 500 or so years ago in Europe, there was no name for the color orange. “Yellow-red” was as close as people got to describing that happy blend of the two primary colors. But when a certain citrus fruit became more widely eaten, the color found a new name: orange. The first recorded use of that word as a color was in 1512.
But back to robins. The color is named after the fruit, and the American Robin is named after the European one. Except that it is now clear they are not closely related. European robins are chats, while American Robins are members of the thrush family. One is smaller and rounder, while the other is longer and leaner looking. The only thing they share is a spot of orange on the breast, and even then, one bird has a small copper patch high up while the other has a longer one most of the way down. And the rest of their markings are not very similar. But early Europeans encountering these birds in North America in the 17th and 18th centuries thought they looked like robins, and named them accordingly.
I blame these early settlers for the noteworthy bout of avian befuddlement I recently experienced. I repeatedly came across a very friendly little bird during the few days we were in Ireland at Christmas and took several photos of it, all the while wondering what it was and chiding myself for not knowing. It looked almost like a little sparrow, except for that orange coloring (and the beak… and probably a number of other things). What could that bird be? Imagine my chagrin when I discovered it was a robin–how is it possible to not recognize a robin when staring straight at one? I can only say that the robin I have always known is the American one, and I was unprepared to identify the European version. I offer up these photos as evidence: first a European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), then its American counterpart (Turdus migratorius). And then I rest my case. (Not sure how much of a case it is, but I rest it anyway).