Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
AMERICAN ROBIN OR MIGRATORY THRUSH.
(State Bird of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin)
TURDUS MIGRATORIUS, Linn.
PLATE CXLII.--MALE, FEMALE, YOUNG, AND NEST.
The first land-bird seen by me, when I stepped upon the rugged shores of
Labrador, was the Robin, and its joyful notes were the first that saluted my
ear. Large patches of unmelted snow still dappled the surface of that wild
country; and although vegetation was partially renewed, the chillness of the air
was so peculiarly penetrating, that it brought to the mind a fearful anxiety for
the future. The absence of trees, properly so called, the barren aspect of all
around, the sombre mantle of the mountainous distance that hung along the
horizon, excited the most melancholy feelings; and I could scarcely refrain from
shedding tears when I heard the song of the Thrush, sent there as if to
reconcile me to my situation. That song brought with it a thousand pleasing
associations referring to the beloved land of my youth, and soon inspired me
with resolution to persevere in my hazardous enterprise.
The traveller who, for the first time in his life, treads the wastes of
Labrador, is apt to believe that what he has been told or read of it, must be at
least in part true. So it was with me: I had conceived that I should meet with
numberless Indians who would afford me much information respecting its rivers,
lakes, and mountains, and who, like those of the far west, would assist me in
procuring the objects of my search. But alas! how disappointed was I when, in
rambling along three hundred miles of coast, I scarcely met with a single native
Indian, and was assured that there were none in the interior. The few
straggling parties that were seen by my companions or myself, consisted entirely
of half-bred descendants of "the mountaineers;" and, as to Esquimaux, there were
none on that side of the country. Rivers, such as the Natasguan, which on the
maps are represented as of considerable length, degenerated into short, narrow,
and shallow creeks. Scarcely any of its innumerable lakes exceeded in size what
are called ponds in the Southern States; and, although many species of birds are
plentiful, they are far less numerous than they were represented to us by the
fishermen and others before we left Eastport. But our business at present is
with the Robin, which greeted our arrival.
This bird breeds from North Carolina, on the eastern side of the Alleghany
Mountains, to the 56th degree of north latitude, and perhaps still farther. On
the western side of those mountains, it is found tolerably abundant, from the
lower parts of Kentucky to Canada, at all times of the year; and,
notwithstanding the snow and occasional severe winters of Massachusetts and
Maine, flocks remain in those States the whole season. Thousands, however,
migrate into Louisiana, the Floridas, Georgia, and the Carolinas, where, in
winter, one cannot walk in any direction without meeting several of them. While
at Fayetteville, in North Carolina, in October 1831, I found that the Robins had
already arrived and joined those which breed there. The weather was still warm
and beautiful, and the woods, in every direction, were alive with them, and
echoed with their song. They reached Charleston by the end of that month.
Their appearance in Louisiana seldom takes place before the middle of November.
In all the Southern States, about that period, and indeed during the season,
until they return in March, their presence is productive of a sort of jubilee
among the gunners, and the havoc made among them with bows and arrows,
blowpipes, guns, and traps of different sorts, is wonderful. Every gunner
brings them home by bagsful, and the markets are supplied with them at a very
cheap rate. Several persons may at this season stand round the foot of a tree
loaded with berries, and shoot the greater part of the day, so fast do the
flocks of Robins succeed each other. They are then fat and juicy, and afford
During the winter they feed on the berries and fruits of our woods, fields,
gardens, and even of the ornamental trees of our cities and villages. The
holly, the sweet-gum, the gall-berry, and the poke, are those which they first
attack; but, as these fail, which is usually the case in January, they come
nearer the towns and farm-houses, and feed voraciously on the caperia berry
(Ilex caperia), the wild-orange berry (Prunus carolinianus), and the berries of
the pride of India (Melia azedarach). With these they are often choked, so that
they fall from the trees, and are easily caught. When they feed on the berries
of the poke-plant, the rich crimson juices colour the stomach and flesh of these
birds to such an extent as to render their appearance, when plucked,
disagreeable; and although their flesh retains its usual savour, many persons
decline eating them. During summer and spring they devour snails and worms, and
at Labrador I saw some feeding on small shells, which they probed or broke with
Toward the approach of spring they throw themselves upon the newly ploughed
grounds, into the gardens, and the interior of woods, the undergrowth of which
has been cleared of grass by fire, to pick up ground-worms, grubs, and other
insects, on which, when perched, they descend in a pouncing manner, swallowing
the prey in a moment, jerking their tail, beating their wings, and returning to
their stations. They also now and then pick up the seed of the maize from the
Whenever the sun shines warmly over the earth, the old males tune their
pipe, and enliven the neighbourhood with their song. The young also begin to
sing; and, before they depart for the east, they have all become musical. By
the 10th of April, the Robins have reached the Middle Districts; the blossoms of
the dogwood are then peeping forth in every part of the budding woods; the
fragrant sassafras, the red flowers of the maple, and hundreds of other plants,
have already banished the dismal appearance of winter. The snows are all
melting away, and nature again, in all the beauty of spring, promises happiness
and abundance to the whole animal creation. Then it is that the Robin, perched
on a fence-stake, or the top of some detached tree of the field, gives vent to
the warmth of his passion. His lays are modest, lively, and ofttimes of
considerable power; and although his song cannot be compared with that of the
Thrasher, its vivacity and simplicity never fail to fill the breast of the
listener with pleasing sensations. Every one knows the Robin and his song.
Excepting in the shooting season, he is cherished by old and young, and is
protected by all with anxious care.
The nest of this bird is frequently placed on the horizontal branch of an
apple-tree, sometimes in the same situation on a forest-tree; now and then it is
found close to the house, and it is stated by NUTTALL that one was placed in the
stern timbers of an unfinished vessel at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in which the
carpenters were constantly at work. Another, adds this admirable writer, has
been known to rebuild his nest within a few yards of the blacksmith's anvil. I
discovered one near Great Egg Harbour, in the State of New Jersey, affixed to
the cribbing-timbers of an unfinished well, seven or eight feet below the
surface of the ground. To all Such situations this bird resorts, for the
purpose of securing its eggs from the Cuckoo, which greedily sucks them. It is
seldom indeed that children meddle with them.
Wherever it may happen to be placed, the nest is large and well secured.
It is composed of dry leaves, grass, and moss, which are connected internally
with a thick layer of mud and roots, lined with pieces of straw and fine grass,
and occasionally a few feathers. The eggs are from four to six, of a beautiful
bluish-green, without spots. Two broods are usually raised in a season.
The young are fed with anxious care by their tender parents, who, should
one intrude upon them, boldly remonstrate, pass and repass by rapid divings, or,
if moving along the branches, jerk their wings and tail violently, and sound a
peculiar shrill note, evincing their anxiety and displeasure. Should you carry
off their young, they follow you to a considerable distance, and are joined by
other individuals of the species. The young, before they are fully fledged,
often leave the nest to meet their parents, when coming home with a supply of
During the pairing season, the male pays his addresses to the female of his
choice frequently on the ground, and with a fervour evincing the strongest
attachment. I have often seen him, at the earliest dawn of a May morning,
strutting around her with all the pomposity of a pigeon. Sometimes along a
space of ten or twelve yards, he is seen with his tail fully spread, his wings
shaking, and his throat inflated, running over the grass and brushing it, as it
were, until he has neared his mate, when he moves round her several times
without once rising from the ground. She then receives his caresses.
Many of these birds shew a marked partiality to the places they have chosen
to breed in, and I have no doubt that many which escape death in the winter,
return to those loved spots each succeeding spring.
The flight of the Robin is swift, at times greatly elevated and capable of
being long sustained. During the periods of its migrations, which are
irregular, depending upon the want of food or the severity of the weather, it
moves in loose flocks over a space of several hundred miles at once, and at a
considerable height. From time to time a few shrill notes are heard from
different individuals in the flock. Should the weather be calm, their movements
are continued during the night, and at such periods the whistling noise of their
whigs is often heard. During heavy falls of snow and severe gales, they pitch
towards the earth, or throw themselves into the woods, where they remain until
the weather becomes more favourable. They not unfrequently disappear for
several days from a place where they have been in thousands, and again visit it.
In Massachusetts and Maine, many spend the most severe winters in the
neighbourhood of warm springs and spongy low grounds sheltered from the north
winds. In spring they return northward in pairs, the males having then become
exceedingly irritable and pugnacious.
The gentle and lively disposition of the Robin when raised in the cage, and
the simplicity of his song, of which he is very lavish in confinement, render
him a special favourite in the Middle Districts, where he is as generally kept
as the Mocking-bird is in the Southern States. It feeds on bread soaked in
either milk or water, and on all kinds of fruit. Being equally fond of insects,
it seizes on all that enter its prison. It will follow its owner, and come to
his call, peck at his finger, or kiss his mouth, with seeming pleasure. It is a
long-lived bird, and instances are reported of its having been kept for nearly
twenty years. It suffers much in the moult, even in the wild state, and when in
captivity loses nearly all its feathers at once.
The young obtain their full plumage by the first spring, being spotted on
the breast, and otherwise marked, as in the plate. When in confinement they
become darker and less brilliant in the colours, than when at liberty.
So much do certain notes of the Robin resemble those of the European
Blackbird, that frequently while in England the cry of the latter, as it flew
hurriedly off from a hedge-row, reminded me of that of the former when similarly
surprised, and while in America the Robin has in the same manner recalled the
Blackbird to my recollection.
The extent of migration of this bird, and its breeding from the Texas to
the 56th degree of north latitude, and from the Atlantic coast to the Columbia
river, seem to me to afford a strong argument against the necessity of migration
in birds. In countries, like ours, of great extent and varied climate,
migrating birds find many favourable places at which to stop during the summer
months for the purpose of breeding. I have repeatedly mentioned that young
birds regularly advance farther southward in winter than their parents, which
may be accounted for by the capability of enduring cold being greater in the
latter. Now, is it not probable that young birds of a second or third brood,
which are urged at an earlier period than those of the first set, but late in
the season, to force their way southward, and save themselves from the rigours
of approaching winter, are at this period of weaker constitution than those
which have been born earlier, and have been less pressed by time in prosecuting
their journey southward? In consequence of this, the last young broods may be
unwilling, perhaps unable, on the approach of spring, to start and follow their
stronger companions to the land of their nativity. They may thus remain and
breed in their first year's winter quarters, or advance so far as their strength
will allow them. In the course of my studies, I have, in a great number of
instances, observed that such birds as produced three broods in one season and
in the same district, were all much older than those which produced only one
brood. Of this any one can easily assure himself by shooting the breeding
birds, and either bending or breaking their bones, or tearing asunder their
pectoral muscles, which will be found harder or tougher in proportion to their
age. Thus I am inclined to believe, that the farther south breeding individuals
are found, the younger they are, and vice versa. This general rule is well
exhibited in most of the species of birds, whether of the land or of the water,
that are known to proceed in spring northward, and to return southward at the
appearance of the inclement season; for in them the gradual progress of the
young may easily be compared with the much slower advance of the old.
I have, on many occasions, when certain species returned to the nest or
spot where they bred the previous season, observed, that what I considered to be
the parents of the first year's young, were again the occupants. In the Swallow
tribe, and in some of our travelling Woodpeckers, as well as in the Summer Duck,
the Dusky Duck, the Mallard, the Hooded Merganser, Crow Blackbirds, Starlings,
Kingfishers, Canada Geese, &c., this has proved correct, in as far as I could
ascertain by the comparative softness of their bones and pectoral muscles. I
think, further, that such species as merely enter the southern parts of our
country in the breeding season, as the Mississippi Kites, Fork-tailed Hawks,
Roseate Spoonbills, Flamingoes, Scarlet Ibises, &c. would all prove, if their
winter retreats were well ascertained, to advance much farther southward than
any of those which reach us first, and which continue their movements northward;
with the exception of such species, however, as would not be likely to meet with
the food they are accustomed to live upon, or the same degree of warmth as that
to which they have been habituated, as our Parrakeets, the White-headed Pigeon,
Zenaida Dove, Booby Gannet, several Terns, Gallinules, Herons, and others, which
are by no means deficient in the power of flight, were nothing else required.
Another thought has frequently recurred to me while making observations on
the habits of our birds: the nests of all those which advance least to the
northward are less bulky than those of the same species found in higher
latitudes. This difference I have not considered altogether as depending upon
the state of the temperature, but upon the longer time afforded these birds for
rearing their young, the old and strong individuals arriving at an early period
of the season, so that they have abundance of time to rear their broods before a
decided change of temperature takes place. Again, it has become a matter of
great doubt with me, whether the necessity of migration has not, in some parts
of our countries, been increased in many species by the great increase of the
individuals of a species that have settled there, and which have so encroached
upon the original occupants as to force them to seek other retreats. In times
long gone by, the country was in a manner their own, and being free of
annoyance, they probably bred in every portion of the land that proved
favourable in regard to food. On the other hand, I am fully aware that many
species, now unknown in certain districts, have formerly been abundant there,
but have been induced to remove to other sections of the country, enticed
thither by the accumulation of food produced by the increase of civilized men.
This I would look upon as a proof that migration is not caused solely by an
organic or instinctive impulse which induces birds to remove at a particular
period to a distant part, to spend a season there for the purpose of reproducing
only; but also for the reasons stated above.
Dr. T. M. BREWER has favoured me with the following remarks:--"Your account
of the Robin hardly leaves me any thing to add, except the fact that Mr. CABOT
found the nest of this bird on the ground (a bare rock) near Newport, Rhode
Island. Such a situation is certainly unusual, if not altogether unprecedented.
It appears to me that the opinion commonly entertained, that the Robin passes
the winter in Massachusetts, is not strictly correct. Sure it is that Robins
are to be found here pretty much at all seasons, but I have no idea that the
same individuals remain any length of time. They are rather successions of
flocks slowly moving towards warmer regions, and have about all passed through
the State by the first week of February; from which time until March none are to
be found there, when those that visit the extreme northern parts again commence
their migrations. In the gardens in the vicinity of Boston, the Robins have
become a great nuisance, from the boldness with which they appropriate to their
own use the largest, earliest, and best cherries, strawberries, currants,
buffalo-berries, raspberries, and other fruit. The Robin generally has three
broods in a season, in this State, and in the third nest it is not unusual to
find the eggs last laid to be only about a third of the size of the others.
Albinoes of this species have sometimes been seen."
The interior of the mouth has the same general structure as that of the
Mocking-bird; its width 4 twelfths. The tongue is 8 twelfths long, narrow,
tapering, thin, horny, with the margins slightly lacerated, and the tip slit.
The posterior aperture of the nares is oblongo-linear, 7 twelfths long. The
oesophagus is three inches long, funnel-shaped at the commencement, afterwards
of the nearly uniform width of 3 1/2 twelfths, until it enters the thorax, when
it contracts; the proventriculus bulbiform, 5 twelfths in breadth. The stomach
is of moderate size, broadly elliptical, 9 twelfths in length, 7 1/2 twelfths in
breadth; the epithelium light red, longitudinally rugous; the muscles of
moderate thickness. The intestine is of moderate length and great width, the
former being 13 inches, the latter 4 twelfths. It passes downwards in front, at
the distance of 1 1/2 inches, bends forward, inclosing the pancreas, opposite
the right lobe of the liver receives the biliary ducts, then passes backwards to
the right side until it reaches the hind part of the abdomen, forms two short
convolutions, afterwards a larger one, and over the stomach terminates in the
rectum. The coeca are 3 twelfths long, 1 twelfth in width; their distance from
the extremity 1 inch. The cloaca is an oblong sac, of which the width is 1/2 an
The trachea is 2 inches 2 twelfths long, a little flattened, firm, the
rings about 78, with 2 terminal half rings. The bronchi are short, of about 12
half rings. The muscles are as described in the Mocking-bird.
ROBIN, Turdus migratorius, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. i. p. 35.
TURDUS MIGRATORIUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 75.
MERULA MIGRATORIA, Red-breasted Thrush, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,vol. ii. p. 176.
AMERICAN ROBIN or MIGRATORY THRUSH, Turdus migratorius, Nutt. Man., vol. i.p.338.
AMERICAN ROBIN or MIGRATORY THRUSH, Turdus migratorius, Aud. Orn. Biog.,vol. ii. p. 190; vol. v. p. 442.
Male with the bill yellow, the upper part and sides of the head black;
upper parts dark grey, with an olivaceous tinge; quills blackish-brown, margined
with light grey; tail brownish-black, the outer two feathers tipped with white;
three white spots about the eye, throat white, densely streaked with black;
lower part of fore neck, breast, sides, axillars, and lower wing-coverts
reddish-orange; abdomen white; lower tail-coverts dusky, tipped with white.
Female with the tints paler. Young with the fore neck, breast, and sides pale
reddish, spotted with dusky, the upper parts darker than in the adult. Bill at
first dusky, ultimately pure yellow.
Male, 10, 14. Female, 9, 13.