American Robin

American Robin Turdus migratorius


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.


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

21 thoughts on “American Robin”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. Hi Anna, This must be a robin with some pigment issues, which seem to occur in robins with relatively high frequency. Birds have two types of melanin pigment, one black to gray and the other reddish brown. It sounds like this robin might be lacking the reddish brown type completely (with white breast and no brownish tones anywhere) and also lacking the other type of melanin in patches (white shoulders). I wrote about this in a post here
      Best, David

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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???

  7. 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.

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

  9. I live in Northern Missouri, we have a robin in the yard this year,and it has a Blue head and back.Have never seen this before,it is with the other robins,frolicks with them.Could it be a true robin,has orange belly?

  10. I live in Dodge City, Ks. Last Sat I had a flock of birds I’ve never seen before.Size maybe a tad larger than a robin, and looked like one, only was all black, with a BROWN breast. there were about 15, and they stayed at the feeder a long time(shelled sunflower chips) also visited the birdbath. Never saw such before, they left and haven’t been back, so must be migrating. What are they?

  11. I saw a completely black male robin. I first saw it fighting with another male robin. Fighting for territory this spring. The belly was slightly less black. A very dark grey. The bill was also black, I could identify an eye ring. I did not see the characteristic thrush hop because of deep snow.

    1. Hi John, That’s very unusual! It could be a melanistic American Robin, with an excess of blackish pigment. Melanistic birds are very rare although there are a few reports of it in American Robins. The other possibility is Eurasian Blackbird, which is a thrush very similar in size and shape to American Robin, and it has been recorded several times in eastern Canada. If you can get any photos that would be very helpful, and I’d be happy to take a look.

  12. I had never seen a Black-backed Robin in the 60 years that I’ve lived on the family farm, but saw one last week and got some photos today. Not only is the back dark grey, but the head is coal black. This is in Richfield, Ohio, between Akron and Cleveland.

  13. I just saw a very pale American Robin in the Chiricahuas of SE AZ. I wasn’t sure it was even a Robin at first. It has a light grey back, a somewhat darker bill and a belly that had much more white and much less rufous than I’ve seen on other birds. I think it’s a Turdus migratorius caurinus, but haven’t been able to find any photos to compare mine with.

  14. The variation of differences between NFLD Robin phase And the typical American seen in Atlantic region. I have the gift of seen both in my large front yard during migration!!
    Thanks’ for conformation.

  15. I’ve been observing either an American Robin with a variation of leucism or melanism or some other pigment mutation, or a black backed Robin all the way South in Philadelphia, PA. I’ve been observing this individual for weeks ever since I first spotted him. It’s been hard getting a picture of him because his temperment is a lot flightier than other Robins in the area. Usually Robins stand a lot more still when they’re on the lookout, and I’m able to get a good picture, but this individual displayed a lot more nervous behaviour and would be very quick to fly away. I was able to get two better photos today after I was sitting in the dirt taking photos of a Savannah sparrow, and then this Robin finally got within my view and I was able to snap a few blurry photos. He has a black back, really dark black, with the typical red on his belly, and when he flies and his tail feathers fan out I can see some white. He also has some uneven white spots on his back, which is what made me suspect leucism or another pigment mutation. I know he’s a Robin because I observed him with juvenile male Robins and a female, but he and his family seem to not interact with the other Robins in the nearby vicinity, which could be due to his colouration.

  16. I live in northeast Florida and have noticed distinct migratory flocks of Robin’s that are much darker/ richer in color than the grayish robin I grew up with in Ohio. I have noticed this darker var in Robin’s of northern pine/ spruce forests in the Adurondacs, northern Ontario, and the highlands of West Virginia, and suspect the color variation is due to that dark forest habitat.

    1. Grew up in London Ontario, Canada, roughly the same latitude as Buffalo NY: Continental climate: cold winters with lots of snow, hot and humid summers. Default breeding American Robin was Turdus migratorius migratorius. By the end of September they were outta here. But each winter, a robin or two would appear among the bare trees, surviving on what fruit they could find. Then in early March, the migrants returned. How could we differentiate? The winter robins were invariably smaller, black above from crown to tail-tip with no white tail-spots, with dark chestnut underparts. And they were silent. The first early March arrivals were singing males a couple of weeks ahead of the females, slightly larger (I was lucky enough to have two males of each type in view simultaneously for direct comparison), invariably brighter chestnut below with black head, light grey back and black tail with prominent white tail-spots. Hard not to assume the summer birds were T.m. migratorius and the winter robins were T.m. nigrideus.

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