by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's note. To get the most from this article, add the right music. Of course, it must be "When the red, red robin comes bob bob bobbin' along." Written by Harry Woods, it was sung in his inimitable way by Al Jolson in the 1926 musical "Don't forget the doughnuts." Here is the link to the Jolson version. There are many other renditions... all peppy, upbeat, quintessentially American, but none like the Jolson one.
This morning... just moments ago... the world smiled and became a better place....
All of a sudden, I heard my name being called and an excited little fella, full of his news and lookin' good, flew onto a branch right in front of me. He said, and he jumped up and down as he said it, "I'm back! I'm back! And I know you're glad to see me!"
I know that's what he was saying, and he was so energetic, so happy, so ecstatic that I couldn't help reciprocating. I smiled. I grinned. I laughed aloud.
This was the sure-fire harbinger of spring, and he was letting me know, personally and in no uncertain terms. that he had returned from his winter sojourn... and wasn't I glad?
Then he sang me just a bit of his trilling tune, just to let me know he hadn't forgotten how much I like it... and then, with a bow and native civility, suitably spruce for his high business, he flew on, knowing I would understand that he had many more stops to make; where so many people would, in their turn, look up, smile, and be cheered, to go inside and spread the joy. The red, red robin was home, and not a minute too soon.
The world's most popular bird? A distinct possibility.
The American Robin also called the North American Robin (turdus migratorius) is a migratory songbird of the thrush family. It is named after the European Robin because of its reddish-orange breast, though the two species are not closely related, with the European robin belonging to the
The American Robin is widely distributed throughout North America, wintering south of Canada from Florida to central Mexico and along the Pacific Coast. Three states think so well of this bird and its cheering song -- Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin -- that they have made it their official bird. It has seven subspecies, but only T.m. confinis, in the southwest, is distinctive, with pale gray-brown underparts.
What child, or adult, too, in the robin's territory has not seen this completely characteristic sight: our tenacious friend, legs firmly planted, tugging, lugging, pulling worms from the ground? Humans like this purposeful sight; it reminds us robins are just like us: industrious, focused, glad to be up and at their work. Yes, we like that.
The American Robin is active mostly during the day and assembles in large flocks at night. Its diet consists of invertebrates (such as beetle grubs and caterpillars), fruits and berries.
It is one of the earliest bird species to lay eggs, beginning to breed shortly after returning to its summer range from its winter range. Its nest is so well constructed that with necessary refurbishing it lasts for years. Robins know just so how to use long coarse grass, twigs, paper and feathers, all smeared with mud, to give them the look and feel they desire. It is a seasonal delight for us, and perhaps for the robins too, to see them at this work. It gives both satisfaction.
Sadly, robins are not immune from troublesome predators, who see in the well-fed and always well groomed robin, a movable feast, tasty for hawks, squirrels, cats, and larger snakes. When feeding in flocks, robins have developed vigilance and a team approach to danger, which stands them in good stead. The benefits of community work for them... as for us.
A word on robin vocalization
It is the male robins who grab the spot light with their complex and almost continuous sound. This song is called cheerily carol, made up of discrete units, often repeated, and spliced together into a string with brief pauses in between. Robins in different areas have developed regional variations and different delivery times. Artists, they do not like to copy, but enjoy their unique approach to the serious business of song. They sing what they like and render it with style.
Robins in human songs and poems
It seems we humans early became infatuated with robins, who delight in cocking their heads at us, bold, curious, sympathetic to our plight, though we did, for a time, eat them. But they have forgiven us for that lapse in judgement.
Robins feature in literature since at least the 15th century and have attracted notable singers and poets to expound upon their virtues and take off on extended flights of fancy.
The best known of the several songs featuring robins is "When the red, red robin comes bob bob bobbin' along." It was the perfect vehicle for the not-quite-yet famous Al Jolson, and he belted it out of the theatre into musical history. Bobby Day in 1958 gave us an entirely different sound in "Rockin' Robin"; the robins were pleased. They delight in their diverse approaches and are sorry Day is hardly remembered today, though his lively tune is.
Poets, too, write frequently about robins, but not always so upbeat as in song.
William Allingham (1824-1889) is maudlin.
""Robin, Robin Redbreast,
O Robin dear!
And a crumb of bread for Robin,
His little heart to cheer."
Robins tell me the pathetic imagery is not to their liking.
They are baffled by Emily Dickinson's poem "I dreaded that first Robin, so." (Her dates 1830-1886).
"I dreaded that first Robin so,
But He is mastered now,
I'm accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though ---"
However, they have accepted the human explanation that no one really understands her poetry. And so the matter rests.
One poet, however, and one poem every robin knows, and wishes you to know. It is this resounding truth from William Blake's (1757-1827) "Auguries of Innocence."
"A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage."
However, let's end as we began, with Jolson. He matches the soaring optimism of the robins themselves, all great American voices:
"They'll be no more sobbin' when
He starts throbbin' his old, sweet song."
And I believe that's true.
About the author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is well known internationally as the author of over 1000 articles and over 60 books. He is arguably the most well-known author of his generation. He has touched the lives of millions of people worldwide with his inimitable prose style. To see all of his works go to www.drjeffreylant.com.