I was at a family gathering in Canada recently and I got to talking with an uncle who shares my interest in birds. I told him of the fascinating similarities and differences between Canadian and Australian birdlife. There are only a handful of birds that you’ll find in both countries, including mallards, house sparrows, peregrine falcons, and starlings. And then there are other birds which have the same name, but are quite different.
For example, Canada has a robin – the American robin (Turdus migratorius). This is a type of thrush with a red breast. Everyone knows spring has arrived when you see robins on the lawn probing for worms. They’re a harbinger of warmer days to come.
When we moved to Tasmania, I soon discovered Australia’s robins. These are not thrushes, but small songbirds from the family Petroicidae. They’re spectacular, especially the Scarlet Robin (Petroica multicolor). I often see them when I go for my daily walk. They always make for doxological ornithology.
After that conversation with Uncle Tom, I got to thinking about why the world has two quite different birds both called a robin. I theorized that the English word ‘robin’ must have originally meant something like ‘red-breasted.’ Thus any red-breasted bird would be called a robin. It turns out my theory wasn’t quite right, but on the right track.
The story begins in Britain. There we find another completely different bird called a robin. The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) is a small flycatcher with an orange breast. This is the original robin. This is where it gets interesting. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “orange” to describe a colour wasn’t known in English until 1542 and the appearance of the fruit in Europe. So, prior to that, the European Robin was described by naturalists as having a red breast. Orange was red.
According to Wikipedia (referring to ornithologist David Lack), in the 1400s a practice developed of giving human names to birds. Prior to this, the European Robin was simply called a redbreast. Probably just for the sake of alliteration, the name Robin was prefixed to it: robin redbreast. The meaning of the name “Robin” has nothing to do with the appearance of the bird.
When British settlers came to North America, they happened upon a bird with a red breast. They called it a robin because of the robin redbreast back home. Similarly, when British settlers came to Australia, they happened upon birds with red breasts too. Like their counterparts in North America, they called them robins.
To make matters more interesting (or confusing), Australia has a blackbird which, like the American Robin, is a thrush. Australia has a magpie which, unlike the Black-billed Magpie of North America, is a butcherbird. You can begin to see why Latin names for birds might be more helpful than English ones!
If you think about it, bird-watching is a hobby with biblical warrant. After all, our Lord Jesus said, “Look at the birds of the air…” (Matt. 6:26). Watch the birds, he says. We’re to consider how our heavenly Father cares for them so we’d recognize how much he cares for us. Not only do they teach us about God’s providence, they’re also an expression of his creative genius. Whether we’re in Canada or Australia, whatever words we use to describe what we’re seeing, it all leads to Psalm 104:24, “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”