Desert rats like myself don’t handle cold well, so after two and a half inches of snow and a few hours of sub-freezing temperatures in early January, my thoughts turned to spring. Warmer weather, fields of flowers and beautiful birdsong. It was still January, but in my mind spring had sprung, and that led to thinking about the classical harbinger for spring, the robin. Unlike most of the rest of the U.S. and Canada, we don’t see a lot of robins in this part of Arizona, which usually surprises folks who move here from other places. It’s not that we never see them; one February day a few years ago a flock of 14 paused for a breather in our mesquite tree on their way north. You can also find them, especially in winter, in Catalina State Park and other nearby spots, but they’re more common at higher elevations or beyond the desert scrub. Those who retire here probably miss watching these colorful thrushes meticulously working their way around a yard, pausing to listen for earthworms and then nailing those they discover. Come to think of it, with yards of rock instead of grass, little wonder we seldom see them. Regardless, it’s unlikely you’d find anyone who doesn’t know the American Robin, which is found in every state, most of Canada and all of Mexico. It’s also the state bird for Wisconsin, Michigan and Connecticut, and it’s one of the top four or five most abundant land birds in North America.
The scientific name for the American Robin is Turdus migratorius, or "migrating thrush," and most live up to the name by wintering in the southern U.S., the Pacific Coast and Mexico from August until February. Some have even wandered as far as the U.K., the Netherlands and Belgium, perhaps appropriately, since our bird got its name from the European Robin, another bird with an orange breast but in no other way similar to our robin. Nevertheless, early colonial settlers saw the orange breast and gave it the same name, which stuck. That explains our bird’s name, but what about the European bird? The scientific name for the European Robin is Erithacus rubecula, or "little red unknown bird." Although the bird’s breast is orange, red was the designated color and the bird became the Redbreast. The interesting reason is that when the bird was named, the word "orange" didn’t exist in England; not appearing until the 16th century, when oranges were first introduced there. In the 15th century, human names began being used for common species, and the Redbreast became the Robin Redbreast, "Robin" being a diminutive for Robert. Robin Redbreast eventually was shortened to Robin and then changed to European Robin. However, unlike our ground-probing worm eater, the European Robin is a small chat, or Old World flycatcher. Its territory ranges from Great Britain to Western Siberia and south to North Africa, rarely leaving home, though it’s been found once in Pennsylvania (2015) and once in Florida (2018), possibly as a shipboard stowaway. It has never visited Arizona.
However, a foreign cousin of our American Robin, the Rufous-backed Robin, has visited Arizona many times and is increasingly found here. The Rufous-backed Robin, Turdus rufopalliatus (rufous-cloaked thrush) is a Mexican endemic that looks like our robin, but with a yellow eye ring instead of white around the eye and, unsurprisingly, with a rufous colored back. The Mexican bird was first recorded in Catalina State Park in 1975; and again in 2007, 2008, 2015 and 2016. When we saw our first Rufous-backed Robin in Arizona New Year’s Day, 2008, in Catalina State Park, we were part of an elbow-to-elbow crowd of 200 birders watching it wolf down hackberries. By the time a Rufous-backed Robin returned to the park eight years later, this Mexican visitor had become a more frequent sighting across southern Arizona and the crowds were gone. I guess its 15 minutes of fame are up.