European Robin (Erithacus rubecula): Barry Kent MacKay

This little oil painting shows what may be the best loved bird of the United Kingdom, where it is usually just called the Robin.  However, most of the rest of us call it the European Robin, or perhaps, a little more accurately, the Eurasian Robin.  It is found eastward well into Asia and south into North Africa, with very distinct subspecies in the Canary Islands and Tenerife.  Research indicates their progenitors arrived there about two million years ago.  Most populations of the species migrate little or not at all, so not surprisingly there are several subspecies.  I have shown E. r. melophilus, from the U.K. much of mainland Europe.

The name “robin” was carried by English-speaking colonists around the world and applied to many other different bird species.  Often they are birds with red breasts, and that are common.  One such species is our own native American Robin (Turdus migratorius), a large thrush found throughout almost all of North America south of the tundra.  The European Robin used to be placed in the same family, the thrushes, but is now considered be more closely related to the Old World Flycatchers (a group quite different from what we call “flycatchers” in the western hemisphere, distinguishing by calling them “Tyrant Flycatchers”.  

The European Robin is also known as the “robin redbreast”, although the breast is more of a brick-orangish-red colour, neither orange nor red.  Incidentally (but fascinatingly) there was no English word for the colour, “orange” until a fruit of that colour became known in Europe when it first arrived from Asia in the 13th century.  And apart from another “fruity” colour, tangerine, there is no alternative word for the colour in English, all of which has nothing to do, of course, with robins.

The European Robin is small (16 to 22 grams, or about 9/16 to 13/16 of an ounce) and to me, as an artist, one of its most endearing features is its remarkable ability to fluff its soft plumage as to appear to be almost perfectly round, with beak, feet and tail sticking out of its rotund shape.  This lends itself to endless and easily drawn caricatures and cartoons.  I doubt that any species has appeared more often on Christmas cards than the European Robin, not least because it is often found amid the holly, as I have, myself, portrayed it.   I couldn’t resist.

For all their charming appearance they are aggressive defenders of their territory, sometimes even attacking other birds, and in one experiment going after just a ball of cotton died to resemble their breast.  They have very high mortality in the first year, so that the average lifespan is about a year, however, if adulthood is reached, they can live much longer.

This painting is in oils on an acrylic base on gesso on acid-free compressed hardboard (“Masonite”) and is 10” X 8”, approximately life size.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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