There are several American animals and birds that follow the pattern of having the same name as a European bird or animal, but being a totally different creature. The jackrabbit is a hare. The buzzard is a vulture, not a medium-sized hawk. The American kestrel is smaller and prettier than the Eurasian one.
I can cope with most of these changes, because most of them are less everyday and familiar creatures. Unless you live out in the country, you probably won’t be seeing many wild rabbits in an average day in Britain. And anyway, hares and rabbits are close enough that only a pedant could object. No problem with this, nor with most of the other examples of “same name, different creature”.
Except for the robin.
The American robin is a thrush-sized bird (actually, it is a thrush), much larger than our diminutive European robins. Only the males have the red breast, the females being a mix of grey and brown (unless I’m getting confused with the European blackbird). The male has a black head, grey back and wings, bright yellow beak and large red patch on the breast. They seem to be associated with spring; you see common references to “the first robin of spring”.
All this is rather a lot to get used to when you’re expecting a little brown-and-grey bird with an orange-red breast and cheeks. If there’s a seasonal association, it’s with winter and Christmas; in a country with an awful lot of little brown birds, the all-year-round bright red breast of the robin is distinctive. It appears on our Christmas cards much like the American cardinal; it’s the right colour and it’s around at that time of year.
I’ve been here for nigh on 9 years now and I still can’t quite get used to the American robin.
Part of it is the difference in personalities of the two birds.
The American robin is a thrush, which means it’s a seasonal bird only around in more northerly latitudes for the summer months before it migrates south for the winter. The European robin is a hardy little thing that braves the long damp cold of a northern winter and keeps on going.
The American robin comes with the spring, which in Texas heralds the dubious promise of a return of temperatures that make me want to use language like “it’s only as hot as hell today”. The European robin is associated with my favourite season, winter. (How on earth did I end up in the state that doesn’t have one?)
Both of them largely eat insects, the American robin largely tackling crickets, grasshoppers and caterpillars. The European robin, on the other hand, belongs to the Old World flycatcher family and is just as likely to be seen with a beakful of lacewing or damselfly. Because of their diet of common plant pests, the robin is known in Britain as “the Gardener’s Friend”.
In shape, it kind of resembles the American kingbirds, which is a very interesting chance of language because the robin has ancient Druidic associations with kingship, perhaps because in winter it substitutes a diet of berries (particularly the old Druidic “winter king” tree Holly) for its summer fare of insects.
European robins are feisty little birds. The males are quite territorial, and show a marked aggression towards the colour red. It doesn’t matter too much to them how big the red thing is, either; they’ve been known to go after post boxes and cars and all sorts. If Batman’s sidekick was named after the bird, it’s the European version that makes the most sense. A tough, aggressive, feisty little bird that preys on common pests. Makes sense to me. But Robin, like Batman, is an American, and European robins don’t exist here, more’s the pity.
That’s probably why the American robin got its name; it’s not the only non-robin “robin” out there (there’s the Australian scarlet robin and the Asian magpie-robin, for a start). Any flying thing with a distinctly red breast is probably going to get called a robin. If European explorers were to discover a red-breasted dragonish creature with four wings and a long scaly tail on Planet Xincus, it would undoubtedly get called a Xincan robin.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the American robin (except when it shows up in London in the Mary Poppins film. Totally out of place). It’s a lovely-looking bird in its own way.
But I have a liking for small, unexpectedly fierce creatures. The stoat, that regularly takes down rabbits and hares three times its weight. The hobby, a diminutive falcon that is agile enough to catch swallows on the wing. The robin fits right in with that.
It should be no surprise that I married the smallest of three sisters, a woman with a lot of the mindset of a robin. She’s a fighter. That’s part of what I love about her. (At least we’re on the same side!) Holy matrimony, Batman!
But my lingering sense of wrongness about something as ultimately unimportant as a garden bird may go a long way toward explaining why many people are so hostile to anything unlike what they are used to. Like the story about the European explorers of America who hated the Grand Canyon because it wasn’t like the Alps.
There are people who call themselves Christians, for example, with whom I feel very little kinship. Their faith manifests itself in a very different set of assumptions than my own.
Are they Christians? In many cases, I have no reason to doubt their salvation. But it’s a definite case of “same name, different bird”.
How do we react to those with different assumptions? With rejection, or with understanding?
In the spirit of practicing what I preach, my next post ought to be a follow-up to this one, looking at the American robin with understanding, not rejection.
I hope Levi doesn’t think I’m stealing his thunder. This whole “lessons from the birds” thing is his schtick, after all.