Ask Kenn Kaufman: Are American Robins Really Robins?

Also this month: What is the one U.S. birding destination every birder should visit? And why can't I count the Great White Heron as a lifer?

Who's Kenn? Simply put, Kenn is a national treasure. A renowned birder, author, and conservationist, Kenn Kaufman has spent his life dedicated to observing birds, reading about birds, writing about birds, and sharing the world of birds with others. With all that birdy knowledge in his brain, he also acts as the field editor for Audubon magazine. So, whenever we have a bird question stumping us around the office, we just ask Kenn. And now you can, too! If you have a bird or birding question you'd like Kenn to answer, leave them in the comments below or on Facebook. Maybe next month you'll get the kind of thorough, thoughtful, and even humorous response from Kenn we've all grown so fond of over the years. —The Editors


Q: Are American Robins really robins? Are our tanagers really tanagers? Why do different types of birds have the same names?

KK: That’s a great question. Are robins really robins, and are tanagers really tanagers? In both cases, the short answer is “No”—but for different reasons.

Many of our common English names for birds originated, not surprisingly, in England—names applied by everyday people who were familiar with these birds in their lives. When we see a simple and expressive name like Nuthatch, Magpie, Dunlin, or Wigeon, for example, there’s a good chance it came from popular usage. (Scientists are more likely to name a bird something like “Cinnamon-rumped Foliage-gleaner.”) The name Robin is a good example of the former tradition, a bird named by the people.

“Robin” is originally from Old French, a diminutive of the name Robert, but it was first applied to a bird by the English in the 1500s. That bird, the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), is a little orange-breasted bird that’s common in gardens throughout Britain, so it’s no wonder people gave it an affectionate name.

When English-speaking explorers and colonists began traveling the world, they applied the name Robin to anything that reminded them of the familiar bird from home. Our American Robin really isn’t similar, aside from having orange on the chest; it’s twice the size and four times the bulk of the European bird, and these days it isn’t even classified in the same family. Neither are the Australasian robins (family Petroicidae), more than 50 species of small, sharply patterned birds found from New Guinea to Australia and New Zealand. Various robin-chats in Africa and robins in Asia are at least placed in the same family as the European Robin, but they’re not all closely related. But none of that really matters; it’s a good name, and we can sort out any possible confusion by looking at the scientific names.

The name “Tanager” has a different history. For starters, the word came from the Tupi people of South America, not from the English. And initially, the scientists who called birds tanagers believed they were all close relatives. But with modern methods of classification, no group of birds has been kicked around more than the tanager family.

The genus Tangara was introduced by the French zoologist M. J. Brisson in 1760 to apply to the bird that we now call Paradise Tanager, a gorgeous multicolored South American species. Within a few years, other biologists were classifying birds as tanagers. Confusion reigned almost immediately, as the alternate spelling Tanagra came into wide use, but still the tanager family became a catch-all for colorful tropical songbirds with moderately thick bills. By the time Alexander Wilson was writing his American Ornithology in 1811, he included Scarlet, Summer, and Western Tanagers as North American members of this group. Many more species were described from throughout the tropics in following decades.

Vagueness about the definition of the family persisted. In an 1886 monograph on the tanagers, British scientist Philip Sclater admitted he couldn’t name a single characteristic that separated the tanagers from the finches, or from the honeycreepers, or even from the warblers. A century later, that uncertainty came to a head when the American Ornithologists’ Union, in their 1983 checklist, lumped a whole series of families together—tanagers, warblers, cardinals, sparrows, blackbirds, orioles, and more—into one massive family. No one was happy with that unwieldy arrangement, and a few years later, they broke up the megafamily into smaller ones again. But we still lacked a precise definition of what makes a bird a tanager.


Most of what we thought we knew about tanagers turns out to be wrong. 

Within the last few years, DNA analysis has made it possible to tell which birds are actually related. With the results, most of what we thought we knew about tanagers turns out to be wrong.

All the birds called tanagers in the U.S., including mainstays like Scarlet Tanager and Summer Tanager, actually belong in the cardinal family. So do the ant-tanagers of the tropics. Some other tropical types, like Puerto Rican Tanager, palm-tanagers, thrush-tanagers, and chat-tanagers, make up their own distinct families. Meanwhile, the actual tanager family has been expanded to include many birds formerly classified as finches, honeycreepers, seedeaters, and saltators.

So under the new classification, are there any real tanagers in the United States? Yes, but not one of them is called a tanager. The one we’re most likely to see is Morelet’s Seedeater (formerly called White-collared Seedeater), a scarce resident of southern Texas. Others include rare strays like Bananaquit and Yellow-faced Grassquit. Two introduced species are established in Hawaii—Red-crested Cardinal and Yellow-billed Cardinal—which, despite their names, are not cardinals, but tanagers!

Q: What is the one birding destination in the U.S. that every birder should visit if they can?

KK: That’s a tough one. As soon as I started to think about it, dozens of possibilities came crowding to mind.

I’ll get in trouble with my local crew if I fail to mention the Magee Marsh region of northwestern Ohio, a phenomenal place to witness warbler migration in May. And my former home of southeastern Arizona is a fabulous birding destination at most times of year.

Florida is full of topnotch birding sites, including my favorite, the Dry Tortugas. North Carolina’s Outer Banks are incredible. On some days in fall, Cape May, New Jersey, is the best place in the world to be.

The prairies of North Dakota are unbelievably beautiful and birdy in early summer. Point Reyes and Morro Bay are two California sites where birding is good every day.

Alaska is full of world-class birding destinations, like Nome, Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), and St. Paul, and my personal favorite: Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island, where a million seabirds fill the air and where the cliffs of Siberia shine along the northwestern horizon. Another place of magic is on the big island of Hawaii, in the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, where we spent a day recently immersed in native forest and surrounded by native birds. These are extraordinary destinations, and I encourage you to visit them, if you can.

But “if you can” is the key phrase here. Many people simply don’t have the opportunity to travel widely, and some of these places may be out of reach. So if the question is about a destination in the U.S. that EVERY birder should visit, here’s my answer: the Lower Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley—affectionately called the LRGV, or just The Valley—hosts an array of tropical birds that barely slip across the border, including such colorful delights as Green Jays and Great Kiskadees, found nowhere else in the United States. Rarities turn up frequently here, including the occasional first record for the country. Unlike southeastern Arizona or southern Florida, where many of the specialty birds are strictly seasonal, most of the south Texas specialties are present all year. Summer can be quite hot so birders tend to visit in winter, but fantastic numbers of migratory birds pass through in spring and fall.

On my first visit to the Lower Rio Grande Valley at the age of 17, I hitchhiked there and just camped out the whole time. Presumably most people will want a little more comfort than that, but still, it’s possible to travel there inexpensively from anywhere in the Lower 48.

Another reason to visit: This is a region where ecotourism really makes a difference for habitat conservation. The amazing Nancy Millar and her colleagues have worked for years to promote birding tourism, measure its economic impact, and communicate those benefits to regional businesses and chambers of commerce. As a result, there is wide support for habitat conservation in this critically important region, and some incredible hotspots have been created specifically to attract birders.

But they can always use even more support—especially now, when some iconic locations are threatened by President Trump’s border wall. So do yourself a favor, go enjoy the wonderful birding in the LRGV. And try to let local business owners know that you’re visiting to see the protected habitats and their magnificent birds.

Q: There's a Florida bird called Great White Heron, but what exactly is it? Is it a subspecies, or maybe a color morph? All I know is that it apparently doesn’t count for my life list.

KK: This bird has an illustrious history. It was discovered and described to science by none other than John James Audubon when he visited the Florida Keys in 1832. Audubon wasn’t the first naturalist to explore that region, but he was the first to notice this bigger bird among the numerous Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and other white waders; he named it Ardea occidentalis, the Great White Heron.

For more than a century, this bird was recognized as a specialty species of extreme southern Florida, mainly the Keys and islands in Florida Bay, replacing the typical Great Blue Herons that are widespread in the rest of the state. An odd twist was the presence of a bird on the Keys known as “Wurdemann’s Heron,” an intermediate form, usually with a gray body like a Great Blue but with a white head and neck.

Several scientists wrote about these intermediate birds, concluding that they resulted from interbreeding between Great Blues and Great Whites (which is true). Finally, in 1973, the checklist committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union lumped these two into one species.

With that, many birders immediately wrote off the Great White Heron as “just a color morph.” It was an understandable assumption, because color morphs do occur in other members of the family. The Reddish Egret famously has two morphs, a dark one and a scarcer white one, which can crop up almost anywhere in the range of the species. These morphs interbreed randomly, and the young in the nest can be a mix of white and dark individuals, regardless of the colors of the parents.


But that's not the situation with the Great White Heron. 

But that’s not the situation with the Great White Heron. In the United States, it breeds only in southern Florida and it essentially replaces the typical Great Blue there. In addition, it differs from the typical Great Blue in more than just color: It averages larger in overall size, with a longer and heavier bill, while the plumes on its head average shorter. So it’s at least a well-defined subspecies, a population with its own geographic range and some distinctive features.

With bird classification it seems there are always complications, and this case is no exception. One issue is that white young have been found in Great Blue Heron nests far from Florida at least a couple of times. Are these just leucistic individuals, or does the “typical” Great Blue Heron have a very rare white morph? Another complication is that we don’t fully understand what is happening with these birds south of Florida, in the West Indies and the coast of Yucatan, where apparent Great White Herons are found with some frequency.

A further complication is that a biologist named Heather McGuire did a study of the interaction of these birds on the Florida Keys and suggested that the Great White Heron should be treated as a distinct species after all. So far, scientific consensus hasn’t followed her lead, but her results at least prove that the Great White Heron is a noteworthy bird. So if you have a chance to see one of these birds, even if it doesn’t count for your list, take some time to observe it and give it some respect. At the end of the day, a checkmark in a box isn’t the reason we go birding.


Have a bird or birding question for Kenn? Leave it in the comments below, and maybe he'll answer it in a future column.