posted March 9th, 2011; last edited March 9th, 2011 –– David Sibley

American Robin Turdus migratorius

Subspecies

Differences are so slight and variable that no subspecies are reliably identifiable outside of their normal range. Bold indicates groups mentioned or illustrated in the Sibley Guide

Eastern T. m. migratorius group

T. m. migratorius – Alaska, Canada, northeast states
T. m. achrusterus – southeast

Atlantic Canada T. m. nigrideus

Western T. m. propinquus group

T. m. propinquus – Pacific Northwest
T. m. caurinus – Interior West

Variation is slight and clinal, involving overall plumage saturation, prominence of tail spots, and very small differences in size. Birds of Interior west average palest, birds of Atlantic Canada (and Appalachians) average darkest, with Pacific Northwest also quite dark. Western birds in general lack obvious white tail corners (especially closer to the Pacific coast), but many eastern birds have very small tail spots.

So-called “Black-backed” Robins T. m. nigrideus (males have black neck and back, reduced white on head, and are more richly colored overall) are most numerous among the breeding populations of far eastern Canada, but birds just as dark can be found commonly in the Appalachian region (Mengel, 1965; pers. obs.), and less often in other adjacent regions. I have identified scattered individuals in the northeast and up to three together among the large winter robin flocks at Cape May, NJ.

While some are strikingly colored and at first I was excited about searching for this “subspecies”, over time I realized that the black back is simply one indication of an overall darkness. The birds with black backs also have reduced white on the throat streaking and facial markings, unusually dark rufous underparts, and darker gray upperside in general.

There is a complete range of variation from pale to dark, so one is forced to make subjective decisions about which birds are dark enough to be “black-backed”. Then I noticed considerable variation among the local breeding population in the northeast states, and began to wonder if the apparent “winter visitor” status of black-backed birds was simply because that was the season when I was able to study hundreds of robins.

Mengel (1965) has published some actual research. He writes about the Labrador-Newfoundland population: “it is my present opinion that these birds represent the extreme expression of a general tendency to rich coloration in the extreme north; one found also, incidentally, in an appreciable percentage of Appalachian birds”. Then lists three specimens from Kentucky, including one taken on Sep 24, before migrants would be expected, and continues “Even if nigrideus proves valid, I have seen so many dark-backed specimens taken in the eastern United States in the breeding season that I think it best not to include the race in this [Kentucky] list on the basis of three specimens”.

I concur, and think that the “Black-backed” robin is best considered a variant that predominates in the northeast, not a subspecies.

Western birds average paler, and most have smaller white spots (or none) at the tail corners, but both of these features are variable and can be found anywhere in the east as well. Similarly, relatively dark birds with obvious white tail spots can be seen in the west. So there is simply no way to be sure whether an odd-looking robin is from another region, or just a variant of the local population.

Typical American Robin (right) and very dark male "Black-backed" Robin (left). The richer colors, solid black neck, and reduced white face markings of the "Black-backed" robin are obvious, but similar birds can be found occasionally across a large part of eastern North America. March, Concord, Massachusetts. Photos copyright David Sibley.

References

Mengel, R. M. 1965. The Birds of Kentucky. AOU Monograph 3

9 comments to American Robin

  • I saw a “Black Backed Robin” aka Newfoundland Robin in our back yard April 27 when I was picking up fallen twigs. I normally don’t pay any attention to Robins but I thought he looked like the healthiest Robin I’d ever seen. He looked ‘fit’ instead of pot bellied; his feathers on his back and neck a magnificent deep chocolate brown instead of the dull gray you usually see; and his breast was more vivid red. I happened to run into Greg Miller a few days ago who was attending a Flora Quest outing and I asked him about it, feeling slightly stupid for asking. But I was glad I had brought it up. He said it was probably a Newfoundland Robin. I started researching on the internet and found a couple of other photos besides this one.

  • Donald Adams

    I saw a black-blacked robin, 3-20-12, in Clarence, NY. The second I’ve seen in many years. This individual was very dark and the breast was very dark roufus.

  • Anna

    Has anyone ever seen a black and white Robin? Or knows if another species of bird would help a female Robin build her nest? The bird that I have seen has the build of a Robin and is helping a female Robin build her nest, but he is black and white. He has a pure white breast,a black head, white on his shoulders, and black that fades to gray on his outer wings. Very interesting bird. I have never seen anything like him before.

  • Janice MacWilliam

    I have a large choke cherry tree in the front of my cottage on the north shore of Prince Edward Island. Last weekend, I noticed a flock of birds eating the cherries. I’ve looked and can’t seem to identify what they are so hope someone can help:
    they are the size of a robin and have an orange-red front. Between their beak and the chest, they are brown with whiteish spots/speckles. They have white flashes around their eyes and a white spot on the back above the tail. The main body is brown. They seem to arrive and leave together for the most part.

  • Ellen

    Hi! I have a robin nest right outside my window. The nest is in a large bush on my deck. We have watched the mother sit on three perfect little eggs and now we are enjoying how she is constantly feeding the baby birds. We are amazed at how these little birds seem hungry all day. I have seen two different robins come to feed them. Could this be her mate helping ? We are trying to not use our deck too often as we don’t want to disturb this feeding process. We are looking forward to seeing these babies learn to fly!

  • jen lorvig

    I live Wisconsin in my back yard a beautiful ordinary robin visits me she(I believe) is dark on top and the reddish-orange belly with white patches here and there with a complete white tail. She is really unique! I’m wondering if anyone else has seen anything like it???

  • Susan

    Saw a white-headed robin today in a flock of robins in our backyard. They arrived 2 weeks ago, didn’t notice this white headed one until today. They feed on the juniper berries on our juniper tree. Any one else see a completely white headed robin? We are in southern Ontario.

  • Susan 2

    We have a white-headed robin (only one so far) in our yard…We are in central Connecticut..so odd to see!!

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