Here in southern New Hampshire, our April this year begins with predictions of 6 to 12 inches of snow. But no matter: last week I saw my first large group of returning robins, over by the Dowse’s yard, clothing the red maples with wings and song. “Remember one long winter in the country when it seemed spring would never come,” wrote ornithologist and author Florence Merriam in 1898. “At last one day the call of a robin rang out. When they come back, what good cheer they bring with them!”
Such good cheer, indeed, that many field guides report that the robin is caroling these words:
“Cheer-up, cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily!” But wait—is this really what the robins are saying?
Grace Archibald of Winchester, Massachusetts, reports robins are sounding a warning:
“Captain Gillet! Captain Gillet! Get your skillet! Get your skillet! It’s going to ra-in!”
And my mother’s dear friend Betty Treiber, down in Alexandria, Virginia, says that her robins are instead shouting out (doubtless with a southern accent) other news:
“The cherries are ripe! The cherries are ripe! The cherries are ripe!”
The respected author and ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush found the words to the robin’s “well-known carol” were far more ominous. In his 1925 classic, A Natural History of American Birds,
Forbush insisted the robin’s words were more like “Kill ‘em, cure ‘em, give ‘em physic!”
Even though the robin’s song begins within days of their reappearance each spring, even though it lasts from dawn to dusk, even though the males sing all summer long, and even though human beings have been listening to robin song for at least 10,000 years (as long as North America has been inhabited by humans)—we still aren’t agreed on the lyrics.
The most extensive translation was offered in 1923 by Leroy Titus Weeks. He claimed the robin was clearly saying:
“Pillywink, pollywog, poodle, poodle,
Pollywog, poodle, pillywink, pillywink,
Poodle, poodle, pillywink, pollywog,
The argument over the robin’s song is not the only clue we don’t know these “familiar” birds very well.
First migrants of spring? Maybe not. Even up in New Hampshire, some lucky folks get glimpses of robins all winter. A few hardy souls stay up here all winter long. America’s most beloved bird? Maybe up in these parts. But down south, in many areas, they’re despised as winter pests since, in winter, they may congregate in flocks up to 50,000 and switch their diet to fruit. A century ago, orchardists felt justified in shooting them by the thousands. (And people ate them. “They are fat and juicy and afford excellent eating,” reported no less an authority than John James Audubon, who frequently dined on his study subjects.)
Even the robin’s name is a case of mistaken identity. British settlers called our native redbreast by the same name as their European robin—who looks like a bluebird. Ours is more closely related to the European blackbird—who, like our robin, is a thrush.
Why call it a robin at all? Because, like the European original, the male American robin’s devotion and ardor reminded the settlers of love-struck teenagers, who were called robins in medieval England. And even that turns out to be wrong.
“Robins are landowners first and lovers only second,” asserts animal behaviorist Len Eiserer. In the lovely book, The American Robin, the author explains that the male is more attached to his territory than his spouse. Only one in eight robins takes up with a mate of past years, while more than half of all robins return to the same neighborhood as the previous year.
That our beliefs about the robin redbreast can be so off-base absolutely delights me—like birds always do. The “best-known” bird in America—the one bird every child can identify without fail—still holds wondrous surprises for us. And that’s the joy of birding, no matter how common the bird. Each individual, each species, is forever a source of wildness and wonder. Welcome, spring!