Robin revisited


Erythacus rubecula Robin or Redbreast, by J. Gould and H.C. Richter, in John Gould, The Birds of Great Britain (London: John Gould, 1866), livr. 10, pl. 48. Collated and repr. (1873), vol. 2, pl. 48.

[This is an update of a previous post.]

The genus name Erithacus is Latinized from Greek εριθακος, erithakos, which is a bird mentioned by Aristotle, in Historia animalium, trans. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, vol. 4 of The Works of Aristotle, eds. J.A. Smith and W.D. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), 9.632b27–30, where he describes Robins (εριθακος) as the ‘winter version’ of (Black) Redstarts (φοινικουρος, phoinikouros), birds that appear as Robins in winter and as Redstarts in summer – a misidentification of migration, as Redstarts would migrate south at about the same time when Robins would move in from the north.

In the binomial era, it was G. Cuvier who first mentioned Erithacus as a genus in Leçons d’anatomie comparée (Paris: Baudouin, 1800), 1, tab. 2. As of 2020 Erithacus is a monotypic genus since Ryukyu Robin and Japanese Robin have been added to the reinstated Larvivora (as Larvivora komadori and Larvivora akahige, respectively), see forthcoming post.

European Robin Erithacus rubecula = Little Red Robin – from Latin ruber = red, and Latin -culus = diminutive suffix – described by Carl Linnaeus (as Caroli Linnæi) in Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis (10th edn., Holmiæ [Stockholm]: Impensis Direct. Laurentii Salvii, 1758), 1: 188, as Motacilla Rubecula, where Motacilla = Wagtail from Latin mōtāre = to keep moving, and Latin cilla = diminutive, the latter mistaken for ‘tail’ in interpreting ‘Sic … motacilla,… quod semper movet caudam’ [Likewise … the wagtail,… because it is always moving its tail], from Marcus Terentius Varro‘s De Lingua Latina [On the Latin Language], trans. Roland G. Kent (London: William Heinemann/Cambridge, MA: Harcard University Press, 1938) 1: 5.11.76.

The following subspecies are recognized by the IOC:

  • E. r. melophilus = Song-loving Robin – from Greek μελος, melos = song, tune, and Greek φιλος, philos = loving – type specimen collected by W. Burton near the Barnet, London, United Kingdom, 14 December 1896 (reported by Ernst Hartert in ‘Types of Birds in the Tring Museum’, Novitates Zoologicae 27, no. 2 (1920): 474), described by Hartert in ‘Aus den Wanderjahren eines Naturforschers. Reisen und Forschungen in Afrika, Asien und Amerika’, Novitates Zoologicae 8, no. 3 (1901): 317, as Erithacus rubecula melophilus (for elaboration see a previous post);
  • E. r. rubecula = the nominate form;
  • E. r. superbus = Magnificent Robin – from Latin superbus = superb, splendid, magnificent, from Latin super- = over, above (prefix) – collected by A. König on Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, winter 1888, description published in ‘Vorläufige Notiz über zwei neue Vogelarten von den Canarischen Inseln’, Journal für Ornithologie 37, no. 186 (1889): 183, as Erithacus superbus;
  • E. r. marionae = Marion’s Robin – for Marion Steinbüchel – type specimen collected by R. von Thanner near Moya, Canary Islands, Spain, (most likely) April 1909, described by Christian Dietzen, J. Pieter Michels and Michael Wink in ‘Formal Description of a New Subspecies of the European Robin from Gran Canaria Island, Spain (Aves: Muscicapidae: Erithacus rubecula marionae subsp. nov.)’, Open Ornithology Journal 8 (2015): 38–42 – IOC added subspecies, 2015 recommendation: Dietzen et al. 2015;
  • E. r. witherbyi = Witherby’s Robin – for Harry F. Witherby – type specimen collected by Witherby near Hammam Righa (as Hammam r’Hira), Algeria, 27 April 1904 (reported by Ernst Hartert in ‘Types of Birds in the Tring Museum’, Novitates Zoologicae 27, no. 2 (1920): 474), described by Hartert in Die Vögel der paläarktischen Fauna. Systematische Übersicht der in Europa, Nord-Asien und der Mittelmeerregion vorkommenden Vögel (Berlin: R. Friedländer und Sohn, 1910), Heft 6, 753–754. Collated as vol. 1, 753–754, as Erithacus rubecula witherbyi;
  • E. r. valens = Powerful Robin – from Latin valēns = strong, vigorous, healthy – type specimen collected by A.P. Gunali in the Crimean Nature Reserve, Crimea, 19 September 1923, described by L.A. Portenko in Птицы СССР [Birds of the Soviet Union], Guides for the Fauna of the USSR 54 (Moscow: Zoological Institute of the Academy of Sciences, 1954), 3: 193, as Erithacus rubecula valens;
  • E. r. caucasicus = Caucasus Robin – for Caucasus – described by S.A. Buturlin in ‘Neue Formen aus dem Kaukasus’, Ornithologische Monatsberichte 15, no. 1 (1907): 9, as Erithacus rubecula caucasicus;
  • E. r. hyrcanus = Hyrcanian Robin – for Hyrcania – described by W.T. Blanford in ‘Notes on the Synonymy of some Indian and Persian Birds, with Descriptions of Two New Species from Persia’, Ibis, 3rd ser., 4, no. 13 (1874): 79, as Erithacus hyrcanus;
  • E. r. tataricus = Tatar Robin – for the area populated by people speaking the Tatar language – described by Hermann Grote in ‘Kurze Mitteilungen: Erithacus rubecula tataricus nov. subsp.’Ornithologische Monatsberichte 36, no. 2 (1928): 52.

Robin 1

RobinIt’s coming on Christmas, and there will be Robins everywhere. Cards decorated with this chat in snow, in trees, in Holly, will grace many a room and mantelpiece.

Robin taxonomy is fuzzy and in flux. Current debate seems to focus on the Western-Palearctic, European Robin belonging to an African-based subfamily named Cossyphinae, part of the larger Old-World Flycatchers family of Muscicapidae. The other two species traditionally grouped into the Erithacus genus, Japanese Robin E. akahige and Ryukyu Robin E. komadori, might well become part of a different genus. John Boyd summarizes the debate openly and with erudition. Time will tell what and where these birds will be and end up.

Robin morphology is seemingly clinal. The orange-red frontal colour features most prominently in names across the Western Palearctic.

Scientific name:
genus: Erithacus, from εριθακος – an unidentified bird, later assigned to Robin;
species: rubecula – red breast.

Linnaeus described Robins first in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae as Motacilla Erithacus, where Motacilla stems from Greek μύττηξ (myttēx) an unidentified bird mentioned by Hesychius in his lexicon. Erithacus is first mentioned by Aristotle in his History of Animals, where he describes Robins as the ‘winter version’ of Redstarts, birds that appear as Robins in winter and as Redstarts in summer – a misidentification of migration, as Redstarts would migrate south at about the same time when Robins would move in from the north.

Zoonomen recognizes 8 subspecies, differentiating them geographically (caucasicus = Kaukasus, Trans-Kaukasus, west of Caspian Sea; hyrcanus = referring to Caspian Sea (Mare Hyrcanus), North Iran, distr. south of Caspian Sea; tataricus = West Siberian lowlands, east of Caspian Sea), descriptive (nominate = red breast; microrhynchos = small bill; superbus = splendid, referring to the darkest breast colour; valens = powerful, the largest subspecies, Crimean subcontinent), and patronymical (witherbyi = Harry Witherby, English ornithologist).

The only reference to the song is in the subspecies breeding in the British Isles, where E. r. melophilus = song-loving redbreast, so named by German ornithologist Ernst Hartert.

Further references to the colour red:

  • Red breast: roodborst (NL), readboarstke (FY), brongoch (CY), petirrojo europeo (ES), pettirosso europeo (IT), אדום החזה (HE), mалиновка (RU), punarinta (FI), glóbrystingur (IS).
  • Red throat: Rotkehlchen (DE), rougegorge (FR), kοκκινολαίμης (EL).
  • Red crop: Vörösbegy (HU), guşă-roşie (RO), rödhake (red chin) (SV).

An interesting name is the Portuguese pisco-de-peito-ruivo, as here redbreast is an adjective to pisco, a name used for a number of old-world chats such as robins, bluethroats, robin-chats, alethes. But there are exceptions to this naming tradition.

  • Czech: červenka = ruddock (červenka -ka diminutive suffix, červený relates to ruddy).
  • Slovak: červienka.
  • Polish: rudzin = ruddock rudz (-in seems to be a diminutive suffix).

These West-Slavic languages refer to older, probably more widespread names, which are etymologically related to the English naming tradition of Robin. ‘Robin’ is a fairly recent invention. In 1100 the bird was called ruddock (rudduc, Old English), where rud(d) = red and -ock a suffix; by 1401 it was recorded as redbreast (Middle English).

Ruddock remains in use locally. Robin is first recorded in combination with redbreast in the first half of the fifteenth century as robyn redbreast, a bit of alliterative fun. Whether robin is a diminutive of Robert or was transferred from Frisian robyntsje (which actually denotes Linnet) is unclear. Robin and Redbreast existed as names alongside each other until the late-nineteenth century, by which time Redbreast became less used and Robin became the established name. The first, 1883 BOU British List still carried Redbreast; by the second British List of 1915, it had been replaced by Robin.