It’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.
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.