State Bird of Wisconsin
By John James Audubon,
F. R. SS. L. & E.
AMERICAN ROBIN OR MIGRATORY THRUSH.
TURDUS MIGRATORIUS, Linn.
PLATE CXLII.–MALE, FEMALE,YOUNG, AND NEST.
The first land-bird seen by me, when I stepped upon the rugged shoresof Labrador, was the Robin, and its joyful notes were the first that salutedmy ear. Large patches of unmelted snow still dappled the surface of thatwild country; and although vegetation was partially renewed, the chillnessof the air was so peculiarly penetrating, that it brought to the mind afearful anxiety for the future. The absence of trees, properly so called,the barren aspect of all around, the sombre mantle of the mountainous distancethat hung along the horizon, excited the most melancholy feelings; andI could scarcely refrain from shedding tears when I heard the song of theThrush, sent there as if to reconcile me to my situation. That song broughtwith it a thousand pleasing associations referring to the beloved landof my youth, and soon inspired me with resolution to persevere in my hazardousenterprise.
The traveller who, for the first time in his life, treads the wastesof 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 thatI should meet with numberless Indians who would afford me much informationrespecting its rivers, lakes, and mountains, and who, like those of thefar 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 therewere none in the interior. The few straggling parties that were seen bymy companions or myself, consisted entirely of half-bred descendants of"the mountaineers;" and, as to Esquimaux, there were none onthat side of the country. Rivers, such as the Natasguan, which on the mapsare represented as of considerable length, degenerated into short, narrow,and shallow creeks. Scarcely any of its innumerable lakes exceeded in sizewhat are called ponds in the Southern States; and, although many speciesof birds are plentiful, they are far less numerous than they were representedto us by the fishermen and others before we left Eastport. But our businessat present is with the Robin, which greeted our arrival.
This bird breeds from North Carolina, on the eastern side of the AlleghanyMountains, 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 Massachusettsand 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 ofthem. While at Fayetteville, in North Carolina, in October 1831, I foundthat 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 Charlestonby the end of that month. Their appearance in Louisiana seldom takes placebefore the middle of November. In all the Southern States, about that period,and indeed during the season, until they return in March, their presenceis productive of a sort of jubilee among the gunners, and the havoc madeamong them with bows and arrows, blowpipes, guns, and traps of differentsorts, is wonderful. Every gunner brings them home by bagsful, and themarkets are supplied with them at a very cheap rate. Several persons mayat this season stand round the foot of a tree loaded with berries, andshoot the greater part of the day, so fast do the flocks of Robins succeedeach other. They are then fat and juicy, and afford excellent eating.
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 whichthey 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 thecaperia berry (Ilex caperia), the wild-orange berry (Prunus carolinianus),and the berries of the pride of India (Melia azedarach). With these theyare 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 juicescolour the stomach and flesh of these birds to such an extent as to rendertheir appearance, when plucked, disagreeable; and although their fleshretains its usual savour, many persons decline eating them. During summerand spring they devour snails and worms, and at Labrador I saw some feedingon small shells, which they probed or broke with ease.
Toward the approach of spring they throw themselves upon the newly ploughedgrounds, into the gardens, and the interior of woods, the undergrowth ofwhich 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 seedof the maize from the fields.
Whenever the sun shines warmly over the earth, the old males tune theirpipe, and enliven the neighbourhood with their song. The young also beginto 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; theblossoms of the dogwood are then peeping forth in every part of the buddingwoods; the fragrant sassafras, the red flowers of the maple, and hundredsof other plants, have already banished the dismal appearance of winter.The snows are all melting away, and nature again, in all the beauty ofspring, promises happiness and abundance to the whole animal creation.Then it is that the Robin, perched on a fence-stake, or the top of somedetached tree of the field, gives vent to the warmth of his passion. Hislays are modest, lively, and ofttimes of considerable power; and althoughhis song cannot be compared with that of the Thrasher, its vivacity andsimplicity never fail to fill the breast of the listener with pleasingsensations. Every one knows the Robin and his song. Excepting in the shootingseason, he is cherished by old and young, and is protected by all withanxious care.
The nest of this bird is frequently placed on the horizontal branchof an apple-tree, sometimes in the same situation on a forest-tree; nowand then it is found close to the house, and it is stated by NUTTALL thatone 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 afew 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 unfinishedwell, seven or eight feet below the surface of the ground. To all Suchsituations this bird resorts, for the purpose of securing its eggs fromthe Cuckoo, which greedily sucks them. It is seldom indeed that childrenmeddle 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 internallywith a thick layer of mud and roots, lined with pieces of straw and finegrass, and occasionally a few feathers. The eggs are from four to six,of a beautiful bluish-green, without spots. Two broods are usually raisedin a season.
The young are fed with anxious care by their tender parents, who, shouldone 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 theyare fully fledged, often leave the nest to meet their parents, when cominghome with a supply of food.
During the pairing season, the male pays his addresses to the femaleof his choice frequently on the ground, and with a fervour evincing thestrongest attachment. I have often seen him, at the earliest dawn of aMay morning, strutting around her with all the pomposity of a pigeon. Sometimesalong 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 andbrushing it, as it were, until he has neared his mate, when he moves roundher several times without once rising from the ground. She then receiveshis caresses.
Many of these birds shew a marked partiality to the places they havechosen to breed in, and I have no doubt that many which escape death inthe winter, return to those loved spots each succeeding spring.
The flight of the Robin is swift, at times greatly elevated and capableof being long sustained. During the periods of its migrations, which areirregular, 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 areheard from different individuals in the flock. Should the weather be calm,their movements are continued during the night, and at such periods thewhistling noise of their whigs is often heard. During heavy falls of snowand severe gales, they pitch towards the earth, or throw themselves intothe woods, where they remain until the weather becomes more favourable.They not unfrequently disappear for several days from a place where theyhave been in thousands, and again visit it. In Massachusetts and Maine,many spend the most severe winters in the neighbourhood of warm springsand spongy low grounds sheltered from the north winds. In spring they returnnorthward in pairs, the males having then become exceedingly irritableand 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 asgenerally kept as the Mocking-bird is in the Southern States. It feedson bread soaked in either milk or water, and on all kinds of fruit. Beingequally fond of insects, it seizes on all that enter its prison. It willfollow its owner, and come to his call, peck at his finger, or kiss hismouth, with seeming pleasure. It is a long-lived bird, and instances arereported of its having been kept for nearly twenty years. It suffers muchin the moult, even in the wild state, and when in captivity loses nearlyall its feathers at once.
The young obtain their full plumage by the first spring, being spottedon the breast, and otherwise marked, as in the plate. When in confinementthey become darker and less brilliant in the colours, than when at liberty.
So much do certain notes of the Robin resemble those of the EuropeanBlackbird, that frequently while in England the cry of the latter, as itflew hurriedly off from a hedge-row, reminded me of that of the formerwhen similarly surprised, and while in America the Robin has in the samemanner recalled the Blackbird to my recollection.
The extent of migration of this bird, and its breeding from the Texasto the 56th degree of north latitude, and from the Atlantic coast to theColumbia river, seem to me to afford a strong argument against the necessityof migration in birds. In countries, like ours, of great extent and variedclimate, migrating birds find many favourable places at which to stop duringthe summer months for the purpose of breeding. I have repeatedly mentionedthat young birds regularly advance farther southward in winter than theirparents, which may be accounted for by the capability of enduring coldbeing greater in the latter. Now, is it not probable that young birds ofa second or third brood, which are urged at an earlier period than thoseof the first set, but late in the season, to force their way southward,and save themselves from the rigours of approaching winter, are at thisperiod 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, perhapsunable, on the approach of spring, to start and follow their stronger companionsto the land of their nativity. They may thus remain and breed in theirfirst year’s winter quarters, or advance so far as their strength willallow 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 inthe same district, were all much older than those which produced only onebrood. Of this any one can easily assure himself by shooting the breedingbirds, and either bending or breaking their bones, or tearing asunder theirpectoral muscles, which will be found harder or tougher in proportion totheir age. Thus I am inclined to believe, that the farther south breedingindividuals are found, the younger they are, and vice versa. This generalrule is well exhibited in most of the species of birds, whether of theland or of the water, that are known to proceed in spring northward, andto return southward at the appearance of the inclement season; for in themthe gradual progress of the young may easily be compared with the muchslower advance of the old.
I have, on many occasions, when certain species returned to the nestor spot where they bred the previous season, observed, that what I consideredto 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 wellas in the Summer Duck, the Dusky Duck, the Mallard, the Hooded Merganser,Crow Blackbirds, Starlings, Kingfishers, Canada Geese, &c., this hasproved correct, in as far as I could ascertain by the comparative softnessof their bones and pectoral muscles. I think, further, that such speciesas 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 werewell ascertained, to advance much farther southward than any of those whichreach us first, and which continue their movements northward; with theexception of such species, however, as would not be likely to meet withthe food they are accustomed to live upon, or the same degree of warmthas that to which they have been habituated, as our Parrakeets, the White-headedPigeon, Zenaida Dove, Booby Gannet, several Terns, Gallinules, Herons,and others, which are by no means deficient in the power of flight, werenothing else required.
Another thought has frequently recurred to me while making observationson the habits of our birds: the nests of all those which advance leastto the northward are less bulky than those of the same species found inhigher latitudes. This difference I have not considered altogether as dependingupon the state of the temperature, but upon the longer time afforded thesebirds for rearing their young, the old and strong individuals arrivingat an early period of the season, so that they have abundance of time torear their broods before a decided change of temperature takes place. Again,it has become a matter of great doubt with me, whether the necessity ofmigration has not, in some parts of our countries, been increased in manyspecies by the great increase of the individuals of a species that havesettled there, and which have so encroached upon the original occupantsas to force them to seek other retreats. In times long gone by, the countrywas in a manner their own, and being free of annoyance, they probably bredin 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 certaindistricts, have formerly been abundant there, but have been induced toremove to other sections of the country, enticed thither by the accumulationof food produced by the increase of civilized men. This I would look uponas a proof that migration is not caused solely by an organic or instinctiveimpulse which induces birds to remove at a particular period to a distantpart, to spend a season there for the purpose of reproducing only; butalso for the reasons stated above.
Dr. T. M. BREWER has favoured me with the following remarks:–"Youraccount of the Robin hardly leaves me any thing to add, except the factthat 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 notaltogether 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 thatvisit the extreme northern parts again commence their migrations. In thegardens 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 thisState, and in the third nest it is not unusual to find the eggs last laidto be only about a third of the size of the others. Albinoes of this specieshave sometimes been seen."
The interior of the mouth has the same general structure as that ofthe Mocking-bird; its width 4 twelfths. The tongue is 8 twelfths long,narrow, tapering, thin, horny, with the margins slightly lacerated, andthe tip slit. The posterior aperture of the nares is oblongo-linear, 7twelfths long. The oesophagus is three inches long, funnel-shaped at thecommencement, 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 intestineis of moderate length and great width, the former being 13 inches, thelatter 4 twelfths. It passes downwards in front, at the distance of 1 1/2inches, bends forward, inclosing the pancreas, opposite the right lobeof the liver receives the biliary ducts, then passes backwards to the rightside 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 fromthe extremity 1 inch. The cloaca is an oblong sac, of which the width is1/2 an inch.
The trachea is 2 inches 2 twelfths long, a little flattened, firm, therings about 78, with 2 terminal half rings. The bronchi are short, of about12 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 tippedwith white; three white spots about the eye, throat white, densely streakedwith black; lower part of fore neck, breast, sides, axillars, and lowerwing-coverts reddish-orange; abdomen white; lower tail-coverts dusky, tippedwith white. Female with the tints paler. Young with the fore neck, breast,and sides pale reddish, spotted with dusky, the upper parts darker thanin the adult. Bill at first dusky, ultimately pure yellow.
Male, 10, 14. Female, 9, 13.The Robin is also the Connecticut State Bird and Michigan State Bird
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