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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

When is a Robin not one?

Well, when it's an Australian robin for a start. Nostalgia has a lot to answer for when it comes to Anglo-Australian bird names. Our settler forebears weren't biologists, but they were observant enough and they were certainly homesick; very few of them were here voluntarily in the early years, being either deported prisoners or their military guards. They needed names for what must have felt like an overwhelming wave of new plants and animals, and sadly they were very rarely interested in asking the existing residents who'd already had names for everything for thousands of years. Instead there was a lot of 'looks a bit like a...' naming, resulting in many Australian animals and plants being named for familiar European species that they only vaguely resembled, and usually were not at all related to. 

A clear case in point concerned the red-breasted birds met with in the earliest days of the Sydney settlement. While the more scientifically-minded were inclined to refer to them as warblers (Scarlet-breasted Warbler was the name applied by the naturalist-painter John Lewin), the populace at large called them robins after the familiar but only very roughly similar rusty-breasted European Robin Erithacus rubecula.
Originally known in Britain as just Redbreast from the late 14th century (replacing the older name Ruddock),
this confiding little bird gained a first name, as sign of affection.
Robin Redbreast (Robin being a 'pet' form of Robert) appeared in the 16th century; in time the 'surname'
was dropped, leaving just Robin as the name.
It is generally recognised now as one of the big assemblage of Old World Flycatchers,
family Muscicapidae, though there are still those who regard it as a thrush.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
Scarlet Robin male Petroica boodang, Canberra.
The resemblance with the 'true' robin of Europe is fleeting at best.
In North America a similar situation arose, though that robin is unequivocally a thrush, Turdus migratorius.
While we can agree readily that our robins are not at all related to their northern namesake, it is somewhat harder to say just what they are. At present the feeling is that they belong in their own family, Petroicidae, whose exact position is uncertain, though it apparently parted from the main line of passerines a very long time ago and perhaps separately from the other Old Australian passerines. All members of the family are active insect-hunters, many using the 'perch and pounce' strategy.

Scarlet Robins are atypical of the family in being sexually dimorphic - males and females are very different in appearance. 
Scarlet Robin female, Canberra (close to my home in fact).
She shares her mate's white forehead spot (not visible in the male above)
but has only a red wash on her breast.
Scarlet Robins are birds of the woodlands and open forest, and are apparently declining in numbers as a result. In New South Wales they are listed as a Vulnerable Species. Locally most of the population remains around Canberra (not often in gardens) all year round, though some birds breed in the nearby mountain forests and come down for winter to join their colleagues.

Another local red robin sometimes causes identification difficulties for those new to the game, but they shouldn't be confused. Flame Robins Petroica phoenicea breed high in the mountains among the Snow Gums, often in sheltered situations low to the ground, including road cuttings.
Male Flame Robin, Namadgi National Park, above Canberra.
His breast is orange rather than bright red, and whereas the Scarlet Robin has a broad black bib
round his throat, the Flame Robin's breast flame licks right up to his beak.

Female Flame Robin, Namadgi NP (and in the mist! It's not your eyes or, on this occasion, my photo).
She always lacks the female Scarlet's reddish breast wash, and her wing bars are notably
more emphatically black and white.
One of the many pleasures of driving up into the Snow Gum woodlands high above Canberra in summer is the constant flash of Flame Robins flying off the road and onto surrounding branches.

A much less common red robin around here becomes considerably more abundant as we head north and west into the drier woodlands. The stunning and diminutive Red-capped Robin Petroica goodenovii is found right across southern Australia, including into the deepest deserts.
Red-capped Robin male, Back Yamma State Forest, south-central New South Wales.
Their typical call is a repeated 'brrrr-brrrr', remarkably like a traditional phone call,
which has been a cause of initial annoyance that my enjoyment of a remote place has been invaded by technology!
Another is a 'tic' sound like stones being tapped together sharply.
Female red-capped Robins (and I can't believe I don't have a photo) are also brown, but with a rusty forehead.
Fledgling Red-capped Robin, Mount Grenfell Historic Site, New South Wales.
The sharp insect-snapping bill is evident even in this youngster.
Of Australia's 22 robin species, only these three are actually red (more so than the European model in fact), which should have made it a bit awkward to call the rest 'robins', but it didn't take long for the original reason to be forgotten - people were using the name 'yellow robin' by 1810, just 22 years after colonisation. Moreover several of them aren't actually called robins, though that's a story for my next posting.

Two species of the wet forests of the south-east are pink, so nearly red. The Pink Robin P. rodinogaster lives in the tall wet eucalypt forests and temperate rainforests of Tasmania, Victoria and southern New South Wales; I can't offer you a picture of this lovely bird, but you'll find one easily enough on line. We don't generally see them here (though females have occasionally turned up at the National Botanic Gardens), but the similar Rose Robin P. rosea passes through Canberra twice a year on its migration between the wet gullies of the ranges, where they breed, and drier forests to the north, where they overwinter. However I had one - well I liked to think it was the same one - which spent quite a bit of time in consecutive winters in my yard; sadly that was in my pre-digital camera days...
Male Rose Robin, Turner.
This is a truly lovely bird, and moreover it builds one of the most beautiful nests I know.
Fortunately I've since managed to get a much more acceptable photo of one!
Rose Robin male, Monga NP, New South Wales.
Next time I'd like to introduce some of the not-red Australian robins, not all as colourful but definitely as beautiful as these red ones. Try and catch up to a robin while you're waiting...

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