Robin singing for spring

Jon Lees

Newtownards, United Kingdom

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Robin singing at Murlough county Down
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European Robin
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European Robin
Adult in Yorkshire, England (E. r. melophilus)
Conservation status

Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)1
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Muscicapidae
Genus: Erithacus
Species: E. rubecula
Binomial name
Erithacus rubecula
(Linnaeus, 1758)
Subspecies

7-10, see text.

The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), most commonly known in Anglophone Europe simply as the Robin, is a small insectivorous passerine bird that was formerly classed as a member of the thrush family (Turdidae), but is now considered to be an Old World flycatcher (Muscicapidae). Around 12.5–14.0 cm (5.0–5.5 in) in length, the male and female are similar in colouration, with an orange breast and face lined with grey, brown upperparts and a whitish belly. It is found across Europe, east to Western Siberia and south to North Africa; it is sedentary in most of its range except the far north.

The term Robin is also applied to some unrelated birds with red or orange breasts. These include the American Robin (Turdus migratorius), which is a thrush, and the Australian red robins of the genus Petroica, which are more closely related to crows.
Robin in the UK, East Clandon
Taxonomy
The European Robin was one of the many species originally described by Linnaeus in his 18th century work, Systema Naturae, under the name of Motacilla rubecula.2 Its specific epithet rubecula is a diminutive derived from the Latin ruber ‘red’.3 The genus Erithacus was created by French naturalist Georges Cuvier in 1800, giving the bird its current binomial name of E. rubecula.4

The distinctive orange breast of both sexes contributed to the European Robin’s original name of redbreast (orange as the name of a colour was unknown in English until the sixteenth century, by which time the fruit of that name had been introduced). In the fifteenth century, when it became popular to give human names to familiar species, the bird came to be known as Robin redbreast, which was eventually shortened to Robin.5 Other older English names for the bird include Ruddock and Robinet. In American literature of the late 19th century, this robin was frequently called the English Robin.6 The Frisian robyntsje or robynderke is similar to the English name,7 while Dutch Roodborstje and French Rougegorge both refer to the distinctively coloured front.8

The Robin belongs to a group of mainly insectivorous birds that have been variously assigned to the thrushes or “flycatchers”, depending on how these groups were perceived taxonomically. Eventually, the flycatcher-thrush assemblage was re-analysed and the genus Erithacus assigned to a group of thrush-like true flycatchers, the tribe Saxicolini, that also includes the nightingale and the Old World chats.9

Two Eastern Palearctic species are usually placed in the genus Erithacus, the Japanese Robin (E. akahige) and the Ryūkyū Robin (E. komadori), the latter being a restricted-range island species. Biogeography and mtDNA cytochrome b sequence data indicate that these might better be classified with some Far Eastern “nightingales”, leaving only the European species in Erithacus.10
[edit] Subspecies

In its large continental Eurasian range, Robins vary somewhat, but do not form discrete populations that might be considered subspecies.1112 Thus, Robin subspecies are mainly distinguished by forming resident populations on islands and in mountainous areas.
The British subspecies, Erithacus rubecula melophilus, differs only slightly from Continental birds.

The Robin from the British Isles (Erithacus rubecula melophilus) also occurs on the Continental side of the English channel and as a vagrant in adjacent regions. E. r. witherbyi from Northwestern Africa, Corsica, and Sardinia closely resembles melophilus but for a shorter wing length.13 The northeasternmost birds, large and fairly washed-out in colour are E. r. tataricus. In the southeast of its range, E. r. valens of the Crimean Peninsula, E. r. caucasicus of the Caucasus and N Transcaucasia, and E. r. hyrcanus southeastwards into Iran are generally accepted as significantly distinct.13

On Madeira and the Azores, the local population has been described as E. r. microrhynchos, and although not distinct in morphology, its isolation seems to suggests the subspecies is valid (but see below). The most distinct birds are those of Tenerife and Gran Canaria (E. (r.) superbus), which may be a distinct species, the Tenerife Robin, Erithacus superbus. It is readily distinguished by a white eye-ring, an intensely coloured breast, and a grey line that separates the orange-red from the brown colouration. Its belly is entirely white.14 Robins from the western Canary Islands – El Hierro, La Palma and La Gomera – on the other hand are indistinguishable from European E. r. rubecula.13 While cytochrome b sequence data and vocalisations15 indicate that the Tenerife/Gran Canaria Robins are indeed very distinct and probably derived from colonization by mainland birds some 2 million years ago,16 The W Canary Islands populations are younger (Middle Pleistocene) and only beginning to diverge genetically. In addition, Tenerife and Gran Canaria birds are well distinct genetically and the latter have been named E. (r.) marionae; a thorough comparison between superbus and marionae is pending. Initial results suggest that Gran Canaria birds have distinctly shorter (c.10%) wings than Tenerife superbus.11
[edit] Other robins

The larger American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is named for its similarity to the European Robin, but the two birds are not closely related. The similarity lies largely in the orange chest patch in both species. This American species was incorrectly shown “feathering its nest” in London in the film Mary Poppins,17 but it only occurs in the UK as a very rare vagrant.18 Some Central and South American Turdus thrushes are also named as robins such as the Mountain Robin (T. plebejus).19 The Australian “robin redbreast”, more correctly the Scarlet Robin (Petroica multicolor), is more closely related to the crows and jays than it is to the European Robin. It belongs to the family Petroicidae, commonly called “Australasian robins”. The Red-billed Leiothrix (Leiothrix lutea) is sometimes named “Pekin Robin” by aviculturalists. Yet another group of Old World Flycatchers, this time from Africa and Asia is the genus Copsychus; its members are known as Magpie-robins, one of which, the Oriental Magpie Robin (C. saularis), is the national bird of Bangladesh.
[edit] Description
Juvenile

The adult European Robin is 12.5–14.0 cm (5.0–5.5 in) long and weighs 16–22 g (9/16–13/16 oz), with a wingspan of 20–22 cm (8–9 in). The male and female bear similar plumage; an orange breast and face (more strongly coloured in the otherwise similar British subspecies E. r. mesophilus), lined by a bluish grey on the sides of the neck and chest. The upperparts are brownish, or olive-tinged in British birds, and the belly whitish, while the legs and feet are brown. The bill and eyes are black. Juveniles are a spotted brown and white in colouration, with patches of orange gradually appearing.20
[edit] Vocalisations

The Robin has a fluting, warbling song in the breeding season, when they often sing into the evening, and sometimes into the night, leading some to confuse them with the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos). Nocturnal singing in urban Robins occurs in places that are noisy during the day, suggesting that they sing at night because it is quieter, and their message can propagate through the environment more clearly. Daytime noise outperformed night-time light pollution as a predictor of nocturnal singing activity in urban robins in Sheffield, England.21 Both the male and female sing during the winter, when they hold separate territories, the song then sounding more plaintive than the summer version.20 The female Robin moves a short distance from the summer nesting territory to a nearby area that is more suitable for winter feeding. The male Robin keeps the same territory throughout the year.
[edit] Distribution and habitat

The Robin occurs in Eurasia east to Western Siberia, south to Algeria and on the Atlantic islands as far west as the Azores and Madeira. It is not found in Iceland.20 In the south east, it reaches the Caucasus range. British Robins are largely resident but a small minority, usually female, migrate to southern Europe during winter, a few as far as Spain. Scandinavian and Russian Robins migrate to Britain and western Europe to escape the harsher winters. These migrants can be recognised by the greyer tone of the upper parts of their bodies and duller orange breast. The European Robin prefers spruce woods in northern Europe, contrasting with its preference for parks and gardens in the British Isles.22

Attempts to introduce the European Robin into Australia and New Zealand in the latter part of the 19th century were unsuccessful. Birds were released around Melbourne, Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin by various local Acclimatisation societies, with none becoming established. There was a similar outcome in North America as birds failed to establish after being released in Long Island, New York in 1852, Oregon in 1889-92, and the Saanich Peninsula in British Columbia in 1908-10.23
[edit] Behaviour
Feeding from the hand

The Robin is diurnal, although has been reported to be active hunting insects on moonlit nights or near artificial light at night.12 Well known to British and Irish gardeners, it is relatively unafraid of people and likes to come close when anyone is digging the soil, in order to look out for earthworms and other food freshly turned up. Indeed, the robin is considered to be a gardener’s friend and for various folklore reasons the robin would never be harmed. In continental Europe on the other hand, robins were hunted and killed as most other small birds and are more wary.20 Robins also approach large wild animals, such as wild boar and other animals which disturb the ground, to look for any food that might be brought to the surface. In autumn and winter, robins will supplement their usual diet of terrestrial invertebrates, such as spiders, worms and insects, with berries and fruit.22 They will also eat seed mixtures placed on bird-tables.20
A robin’s egg

Male Robins are noted for their highly aggressive territorial behaviour. They will attack other males that stray into their territories, and have been observed attacking other small birds without apparent provocation. Such attacks sometimes lead to fatalities, accounting for up to 10% of adult Robin deaths in some areas.24

Because of high mortality in the first year of life, a Robin has an average life expectancy of 1.1 years; however, once past its first year it can expect to live longer and one Robin has been recorded as reaching the age of 12 years.25 A spell of very low temperature in winter may also result in significant mortality.24
[edit] Breeding
Female robin in its nest, incubating a clutch of eggs

Robins may choose a wide variety of sites for building a nest, in fact anything which can offer some form of depression or hole may be considered. As well as the usual crevices, or sheltered banks, odder objects include pieces of machinery, barbecues, bicycle handlebars, bristles on upturned brooms, discarded kettles, watering cans, flower pots and even hats. The nest is composed of moss, leaves and grass, with finer grass, hair and feathers for lining. Two or three clutches of five or six eggs are laid throughout the breeding season, which commences in March in Britain and Ireland. The eggs are a cream, buff or white speckled or blotched with reddish-brown colour, often more heavily so at the larger end.26 When juvenile birds fly from the nests they are mottled brown in colour all over. After two to three months out of the nest, the juvenile bird grows some orange feathers under its chin and over a similar period this patch gradually extends to complete the adult appearance.

Artwork Comments

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