The American robin is the most abundant bird in North America. According to estimates, over 370 million American robins make their homes between Canada and Mexico. These pleasant songbirds belong to the thrush family, Turdidae, and commonly occur in backyards, parks, and urban areas. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, the European robin holds dominance throughout much of Europe and Eurasia. While they both bear the name robin and appear similar, the two species are not closely related. Unlike the American robin, the European robin belongs to the family Muscicapidae or the Old World flycatchers. Despite this difference, they both go by the name robin. In truth, nearly 120 different species include the word robin in their name. Many of these birds belong to different families that share little in common. At the same time, there exist numerous birds that look like robins, but aren’t called robins.
If this sounds confusing, don’t worry. So long as you pay attention to the full names of these birds, you’ll have no trouble telling them apart. That said, if you encounter a bird in your backyard that looks like a robin, how can you know for sure? To help you, we’ve compiled this list of 5 birds that look like robins but aren’t actually robins. So the next time you encounter one of these birds singing outside your window, just think back to this list. After all, you wouldn’t want to call a bird a robin by accident, would you?
Here’s further help: a quick reference chart for identifying robin-like birds.
The red-breasted nuthatch is a small songbird commonly found throughout North America. It is a member of the nuthatch family or Sittidae. It gets its name from its distinctive pale red breast and habit of wedging nuts into cracks to break them open. They frequently live in conifer forests in colder climates but migrate southward to random, warmer locales as the seasons change. Known as an acrobatic species, red-breasted nuthatches hop around trees in search of food. You might see them walking upside down along branches while they hunt for seeds or insects. At times, they will also catch flying insects out of midair, especially in summer. In winter, you’re more likely to see them frequenting bird feeders or dining on seeds.
To the casual observer, it’s easy to mistake a red-breasted nuthatch for an American robin. Both species feature red feathers on their breasts, white and black facial markings, grayish back feathers. That said, if you take a closer look, it’s quite easy to tell them apart. First of all, robins measure larger than nuthatches. The average red-breasted nuthatch measures around 4.5 inches long with an 8.5-inch wingspan. Meanwhile, American robins usually measure between 9 to 11 inches long with a wingspan between 12 and 16 inches long. In addition, the feathers on a robin’s breast look much darker and redder than those on a nuthatch. Furthermore, a robin’s face is mostly black with white circles around the eyes, while a nuthatch’s face is striped black and white. Finally, the gray feathers on a nuthatch contain a bluish tint, while robin feathers do not.
#4 Spotted Towhee
Previously known as the rufous-sided towhee, the spotted towhee belongs to the family of New World sparrows or Passerellidae. Once considered part of the same species as the eastern towhee, scientists now recognize it as a distinct species. Spotted towhees range throughout the western United States, southern Canada, and parts of Mexico. Typically found in open forests and brushy scrubland, spotted towhees make their nests on or near to the ground. In the spring and summer, their diet consists of high-protein foods such as beetles, spiders, and other insects. During the winter, they switch to foraging for available foods like acorns, berries, and seeds.
At first glance, the spotted towhee and American robin look remarkably similar. The average spotted towhee measures between 6.7 to 8.3 inches long and sports an 11-inch wingspan. These measurements come in only slightly behind a robin’s, although robins will weigh around twice as much as a spotted towhee. While both birds feature a dark gray or black head, spotted towhees lack the white facial markings present on robins. Furthermore, while robins have a rich reddish-orange breast, spotted towhees have a white breast with reddish-brown sides. That said, if you want to tell the difference between the two, simply look at their eyes or feet. Spotted towhees feature distinctive red eyes and pink legs. Meanwhile, American robins have black eyes and brown feet.
#3 Varied Thrush
Like the American robin, the varied thrush belongs to the family Turdidae. However, it belongs to a different genus, Ixoreus, of which it is the sole member. Scientists currently recognize four subspecies, all of which live throughout the western United States, Canada, and Alaska. In summer, they breed in northern regions and then will fly south for the winter. However, some populations that live close to the coast in the Pacific Northwest do not migrate at all. They typically live in dense coniferous forests and build their nests in trees. While they eat mostly insects in summer, they consume primarily fruits, acorns, and seeds in winter. Some of their favorite berries include huckleberry, honeysuckle, thimbleberry, and snowberry.
Similar to other birds that look like robins, varied thrushes measure almost the exact same size as the American robin. In general, they reach between 7.9 to 10.2 inches long with a wingspan between 13 to 17 inches long. That said, varied thrushes do not stand as tall, and usually look stockier than robins. Also, varied thrushes exhibit bright orange feathers on their breasts, as opposed to the more reddish-orange breast of a robin. They also frequently feature orange markings on their backs and wings, while a robin’s wings contain only slightly black and white markings. Finally, varied thrushes feature a white stripe over each eye, which is completely lacking in robins.
#2 Black-headed Grosbeak
The black-headed grosbeak belongs to the Cardinalidae family, which also includes the northern cardinal. During the summer, its range runs from southern British Columbia down through the central and western United States and into central Mexico. In winter, most black-headed grosbeaks not already in Mexico will migrate there and stay until spring. They prefer living in wooded areas with large trees and bushes, although they also live in wetlands and urban areas. While they sometimes build their nests in bushes, they usually construct their nests in trees well above the ground. Unlike most songbird species, both the male and female black-headed grosbeak will take turns incubating their eggs. Their diet consists mainly of insects in summer and seeds, berries, and fruit in winter. Also, it is one of the only birds that can eat the poisonous monarch butterfly without any ill effects.
Most people would likely find it difficult to differentiate the vocalizations of a black-headed grosbeak from an American robin. However, listen closely, and you’ll notice that a grosbeak warbles more quickly and sweetly than a robin. In addition, their song is more textured than a robin’s, and generally, lasts much longer. Compared to the American robin, the black-headed grosbeak measures significantly shorter and weighs less. On average, they reach between 7.1 to 7.5 inches long and weigh between 1.2 to 1.7 ounces. Another difference concerns the color and shape of their beaks. The black-headed grosbeak sports a large gray beak while the American robin features a thin yellow beak. Finally, while a robin’s belly is white, the black-headed grossbeak’s belly is yellow.
#1 Common Redstart
The common redstart or just redstart belongs to the same Old World flycatcher family as the European robin. At present, scientists recognize 16 redstart species, with the common redstart considered the “true redstarts.” There exist two subspecies of common redstart. One lives mostly in Europe and Russia, while the other ranges from the Crimean Peninsula to Central Asia. During the winter, both subspecies will migrate to Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of southern Saudi Arabia. They live primarily in open woodlands and build their nests inside tree holes. Their diet consists primarily of winged insects, which they can catch midair like most flycatcher species.
Of all the birds that look like robins, the common redstart may bear the strongest resemblance. In particular, it looks extremely similar to the European robin, while also sharing a number of traits with the American robin. Like the American robin, it features a reddish-orange breast, gray head and back, and black face. That said, there exist a few key differences. First, the common redstart features a black beak and legs, unlike the American robin’s yellow beak and brown legs. Second, it is significantly smaller, measuring only 5.1 to 5.7 inches long and less than half a robin’s weight. Finally, whereas a robin’s tail is mostly gray or black, the common redstart’s tail contains reddish markings.
Summary Table of 5 Birds That Look Like Robins
|Mostly gray or black tail. Black & white on wings. Black & white circling eyes.
|Orange markings on back and wings
|White with reddish-brown sides
|Black & white stripes on face.
Honorable Mention: Other Birds That Look Like Robins
As stated earlier, there are over 120 species of birds that have the word ‘robin’ in their name but not all are of the same species. The European robin (Erithacus rubecula), belonging to the Old World family of flycatchers, is a different species than the American robin (Turdus migratorius), which belongs to the thrush genus Turdidae. To make differentiations even more complicated, the Australian robin (Petroicidae) is a third species, of no relation to the previous two mentioned. This means that there are quite a few birds that resemble the ‘robin’, whichever region you’re in. Here are a few additional birds, not belonging to any of the three robin species, that didn’t make the top five but deserve recognition:
- Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) – this is the smallest species of blackbird in the family Icterid, a bird that can be found spending summers in the eastern United States and southern Canada, and winters in Mexico and South America. This tiny lookalike has a length of 5.9 -7.1 inches and weighs a slight 0.6-1.0 ounces. Adult males are similar to robins, with their chestnut or ochre underbellies.
- Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii) – like many oriole species, these songbirds have a bright red underbelly that is similar to a robin’s vibrant red colors. A small New World blackbird, they were at one time thought to be the same species as the Northern oriole. As with many birds, the males are brighter colored than females. They can reach lengths of up to 7.5 inches and only weigh between 1 to 1.5 ounces.
- Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) – the females of the species sport the red breast that the robin is known for. The males and females of this colorful species are easily distinguished by their color patterns. While both are rufous, males have black upper bodies, heads, and tails and females are brown in these areas. This species of sparrow is found throughout the eastern United States and Southeast Canada and ranges in size from 6.8 to 9.1 inches.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/PhotosByMSA
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