Ken Baker: A robin could be a better American symbol

·4 min read
Ken Baker and Cocoa
Ken Baker and Cocoa

Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound…And who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, wages a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.

             — "The Adventures of Superman" TV show, 1952-58

Yes, Clark Kent was really Superman. But Superman was also really Clark Kent.

I get why our forefathers chose the Bald Eagle to be our National Symbol. She is a magnificent animal, soaring the morning skies, the very embodiment of “purple mountains majesty” in living form.

And yet, might I offer a modest observation? I’m sure it’s a stretch, but it seems to me that this commanding symbol of our wonderfully complex, fractious, and dynamic nation also has a quite remarkable mild-mannered alter-ego …the American Robin.

The original sketch of the Great Seal of the United States,  by the founding fathers. The national motto 'E Pluribus Unum' is featured.
The original sketch of the Great Seal of the United States, by the founding fathers. The national motto 'E Pluribus Unum' is featured.

On June 20, 1782, the Great Seal of the United States was approved by the Second Continental Congress. At its centerpiece was an idealized depiction of the Bald Eagle, chosen (after much debate) for its perceived strength, independence, and determination, and because it is native to North America.

Eagles may have strength but robins have perseverance

The escutcheon (shield) covering its chest consists of a field of blue signifying vigilance, perseverance, and justice, above seven white (for purity and innocence) and six red (for hardiness and valor) vertical stripes representing the thirteen original colonies. The olive branch in its right talon and arrows in its left symbolize the power of both peace and war,

In its beak, the banner in Latin reading E Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many One,” was the original Motto of the United States until 1956 when it was replaced by “In God We Trust.”

And the American Robin — which of our diverse country’s many traits might it symbolize?

I’ve written several times in the past on this so-common-you-sometimes-hardly-even-notice-it bird of backyards, farmyards, and open woodlands. Here’s a few bits lifted from my April 2016 and June 2018 essays:

Our robin is a member of the thrush family which includes some 150 species, many of which are known for their complex, flute-like songs. But the American Robin got its name from homesick British colonists because it reminded them of the Robin Redbreast back home, which is not a thrush. In similar fashion, we have the Brits to thank for the Indian Robin, two New Zealand Robins and a variety of Australian Robins.

A female robin will incubate her eggs for up to 14 days

Only the female incubates the eggs, which takes about 12 to 14 days. No easy task, she will sit on the eggs for about 50 minutes out of each hour, keeping as still as possible to avoid the all too sharp eyes of egg predators like red squirrels, raccoons, and jays. Research indicates that only some 40% of nests will produce young that live long enough to fledge (leave) the nest. Only about a quarter of the fledglings will live to see their first migration south. Those that make it this far can expect to live 5-6 years.

The American robin’s song is one of the most familiar sounds of spring and early summer. Throughout North America, it is commonly the first morning sound, after the alarm clock, we hear. The insomniac’s companion, the neighborhood robin often begins his chorale as early as 3 or 4 a.m.

His song, a long sequence of terse liquid phrases, if not exactly beautiful at least has the charm of bright enthusiasm: “Cheerily cheer-up cheer-up cheerily cheerily cheer-up!”  Having learned the song of the one in your backyard, you’ll recognize robin voices across the continent; the species’ song pattern and texture are that distinctive.

And yet, like all members of the thrush family, the robin’s seemingly simple, repetitive song is actually quite complex. A 2006 study demonstrated that individual robins largely invent the separate elements of their song and the sequence in which they are used. Each male proclaiming his territory has a unique song that every other robin in the area can easily recognize.

All that and the funny run-walk-hop thing they do across the front lawn, only to stop on a dime and cock their heads to eyeball a possible earthworm snack. Does any of this sound uniquely American?

Well, maybe not particularly.

But there are few of us — from Nome to Tallahassee or Bangor to Moab — who aren’t familiar with the song it sings in a summer rain or who haven’t, perhaps, shown their kids its scruffy babies chirping hungrily from an equally scruffy nest somehow perched atop a light fixture over the garage door.

If the Bald Eagle is our symbol of strength and vigilance within the world, perhaps the American Robin might represent an American middle ground. We need no reminders of today’s serious, even impassioned antagonisms among polarized groups of our citizens. But isn’t it nice — simply nice — to be reminded, on occasion, of one of the many profound experiences we Americans share as one people?

Ken Baker is a retired professor of biology and environmental studies. If you have a natural history topic you would like Dr. Baker to consider for an upcoming column, please email your idea to fre-newsdesk@gannett.com. 

This article originally appeared on Fremont News-Messenger: Ken Baker: A robin could be a better American symbol