Migratory Thrush

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When I was a boy, robins were plump little things with cranberry-red breasts. They usually came with a sprig of English Holly. My experience of them was confined to the graphical: they were on Christmas cards from Gran or Auntie Millie, almost every year, and they were European Robins — not the big-bodied thrush of the United States. In fact, the two birds are quite different. They share the name Robin because of a superficial similarity in coloring and not because they belong to a common genus. The British robin is a flycatcher of the genus Erithacus; the American version is a true thrush, the mighty Turdus migratorius.

But how much the Red Cedar American Robins actually migrate is an open question.

It snowed last weekend, and the week that followed continued cool, so that by Thanksgiving small patches of ice were still on the ground, and only in the last few days has it warmed enough that the ice in the birdbath has melted. Yesterday morning three mule deer yearlings, if we use the term loosely, were nosing around the birdbath. They had probably grown up on the hill and as fawns used the bath as a water source. They still return to it, even when getting a good drink means pushing aside a plate-sized disc of ice just enough to gain access. During spring and summer, deer get much of the water they need from green plants, forbs or shrubs. But they still need water in the fall and winter, when many of the vascular plants have shed leaves or gone dormant. So I keep the birdbath full through the seasons.

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Apart from the deer, though, three kinds of birds visit it most often: Brewer’s Blackbirds during their breeding & nesting season (primarily May-July), Eurasian Collared-Doves, and American Robins. Robins are found throughout Colorado, but they seem to migrate from our spot, at least short distances, during the summer. My limited photo library has pictures of them March through June, and then nothing for the next three months. They reappear in October, and by November as many as six or eight at a time can be seen clustering in the trees around the birdbath, where they delight in taking vigorous dips. The range maps show them breeding along the northern Front Range, but they live year-round directly east, west, and south of us, and so I imagine the grasslands and farms of the eastern plains, for instance, draw many of their number when grain is plentiful.

One thing that will not draw them, however, is native English Holly. Despite its appearance in Disney’s Mary Poppins — widely seen as a movie blooper — Turdus migratorius will never find its way onto an English Christmas card. (It has been recorded on the British Isles as a vagrant, but it doesn’t live or nest there.) And that’s just as well: it’s ours, found in every state of the union except Hawaii. Not just red states or blue states, but the United States of Robin. As American as pumpkin pie and E Turdus Unum.

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