For the Birds Radio Program: Robins
“Blackbird pie” was made up of robin relatives, not blackbirds, and our robin isn’t related to the European Robin.
![American Robin] (https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3217/3372714339_2bd1513d2f.jpg “American Robin”)
American Robin (Recording–“Sing a song of six-pence, a pocket full of rye. Four-and- twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing. Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?”)
This familiar nursery rhyme originated in England sometime during the 1500’s. Blackbird pie was a popular item on the menu back then, but the ingredients didn’t include any of America’s familiar blackbirds–the bird most favored was a very close relative of our own American Robin. The European Blackbird looks like a dark-colored robin, is found in open areas and back yards much like our robin, and apparently is mighty tasty.
![Eurasian Blackbird] (https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5537/14416633035_3ee7221f91_b.jpg “Eurasian Blackbird”)
Robin pie was a popular food item in America, too, for a long time. Even after it became illegal to kill songbirds in 1918, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, robins in feeding flocks were frequently shot for food. Fully feathered and fattened in fall, a robin weighs less than three ounces, so it took several to make a meal.
The American Robin is the state bird of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Connecticut. It was named by homesick early English settlers for their own Robin Redbreast.
![European Robin] (http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3910/14227981617_049ba07886.jpg “European Robin”)
Wherever the English have settled, they have managed to bestow the name robin on any native birds with even a hint of red or russet in the plumage. In the United States the English haven’t limited the name to our robin–at one time or another they’ve called our bluebird the Robin, our Rufous-sided Towhee the Ground Robin, our Baltimore Oriole the Golden Robin, and our Cedar Waxwing the Canadian Robin. They went so far as to label two reddish sandpipers, the dowitcher and the Red Knot, Robin Snipes, and our Red-breasted Merganser the Sea Robin. Now there are dozens of unrelated birds throughout the world all called “robins,” and so our own robin is properly called the “American Robin” to distinguish it from the others.
The expression “round robin” originated at Gibralter in 1612 on the sailing ship Catherine. Her crew was discontented and drew up a petition against the captain. But they realized that the captain was legally entitled to hang the chief dissenter–whoever’s signature was first was probably doomed. So, to avoid putting anyone in that fatal position, they decided to sign their names in a circle, with no individual in first position. A statuette of a robin on a circular base was at hand, and they used it to trace the circle on which to form the signatures. Now a round robin can mean any petition or protest on which the signatures are arranged in a circle in order to conceal the order of signing, or any tournament in which each contestant is matched against every other contestant, giving each individual exactly equal standing.
A few robins are back in the Northland already. Listeners have reported one or two in Ashland, Wisconsin on March 4. That glorious warm front on Saturday, March 7, brought robins to Virginia, Minnesota and Solon Springs, Wisconsin. Male robins always return before females. The first day or two they feed voraciously and then start selecting and defending territories with song and high-speed chases. Females, which are browner-backed and have a duller breast, won’t bother to come back until the males have settled most of their differences. Robins wake up earlier than any other songbird, and sometimes sing around the clock.
(Recording of an American Robin)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”