When I first started birding long, long ago (how long? pre-computer, but post the printed word thankfully) one of the birds that got me firmly and eternally hooked was a species that we here in the UK know as “the robin”. A small, rotund, fiery bundle of aggression and sweet song, the European Robin Erithacus rubecula is a familiar and much-loved species across most of the country – so well-known and well-regarded that it was chosen as Britain’s National Bird in a public ballot in 1960, was overwhelmingly voted favourite garden bird in an online poll run by the The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in 2004, and also won a Gold Medal Award after being voted Scotland’s favourite bird in the RSPB Scotland Centenary Awards. On top of that, let’s not forget, its name (which apparently means “famed; bright; shining“) has been carried around the world by European emmigres, who named almost any unrelated red-breasted bird they came across “robin” in countries from the US (yes, I’m talking about the American Robin here) to South Africa and across to Asia!
The Real red, red robin – European Robin Erithacus rubecula
Close, but no prize: American Robin Turdus migratorius (above), and Cape Robin Cossypha caffra
European birders I know always seem a little bewildered that us Brits are so enamoured of Robins. Though they range across Europe (including the Mediterranean islands) to North Africa and east to West Siberia and Iran, in most areas they are shy birds that are seen no more commonly than any other small, brown skulking bird and are little more than contributors to the background of songs emerging from forests and dense thickets. In Britain, though, Robins have apparently found ther courage and are commonly seen in gardens – and every keen gardener you care to talk to (and if Britain’s anything it’s a nation of gardeners) seems to have their own tale to tell of a Robin hopping onto a garden spade and fixing its steady gaze on the ground below. The reason appears to be that Robins have long followed foraging animals like Wild Boars as they turn over the earth looking for roots, nuts, and fruit etc – flitting down to snatch disturbed insects or earthworms in their wake: gardeners, with their forks and spades, are in effect nothing more than two-legged wild boars in old sweaters turning over the soil. It’s not quite as romantic as “humans and wild birds forge extraordinary close bonds” – but it’s probably more accurate…
Talking of ‘accurate’ much of what we know about Robins is down to a near-legendary ornithologist called David Lack, a renowned observer of bird behaviour, who in the 1940s wrote “The Life of the Robin” and discovered just how enraged both males and females birds became when confronted with another robin’s red-breast feathers: “An exceptionally violent hen robin attacked the specimen so strongly that she removed its head. For a moment the bird seemed rather startled, but then continued to attack the headless specimen as violently as before, and it seemed as though it might have demolished it completely if I had not interrupted proceedings….” Lack went on to experiment and discovered that “a headless, wingless, tailless, legless and bodiless bundle of red feathers appears as a rival to be attacked… Even the empty air can contain a rival to be destroyed. The world of the robin is so strange and remote from our experience that into it we can scarcely penetrate, except to see dimly how different it must be from our own.” A warning to gardeners everywhere to stick to neutral colours when they venture into the flower-beds with their hoes!
Robins were very well-known to the rural folk of Britain (they’re found all year round here, and that vivid red breast must have made them quite visible in the depths of a snowy winter) and a huge and wonderful amount of folklore has grown up around them. A number of stories seek to explain the origin of the red breast, one tale saying that as Jesus was on his way to be crucified a robin removed a thorn from the crown that was piercing his forehead, pricking its breast and staining its feathers with blood. Another story suggests that the robin’s breast was singed while fanning the fire to warm baby Jesus (or alternatively was singed while trying to cool sinners in Hell by fanning them).
Another belief is that the position of a Robin when singing could be used to forecast the weather: if it sang on top of a bush the weather would be warm, while if it sang from within the branches then rain was on the way. One strange belief about the robin was that if it found a dead body it would cover it with leaves or moss (it’s just a thought, but perhaps this arose because Robins would be attracted to the flies around hidden corpses and turn over the leaves used to hide the body to get to them?). It was also thought to be extremely unlucky to kill the bird. According to one superstition, if you killed a robin your hands would not stop shaking, while anyone who broke its eggs would have something valuable of their own broken. Great stuff, and as an aside it’s quite sad to reflect that in our far more urban and mechanised environment the days when such folklore might arise are probably long gone…
That’s not to say that people will stop admiring robins of course. Most people with any interest in birds at all – and thanks to programme’s like the BBC’s superb “Springwatch” that number does seem to be growing – know and love robins. Friendly, familiar, tuneful, and used to decorate Christmas cards by the forest load (in 1999 a pensioner in Kent, UK held the Guinness Book of Records record for the largest robin Christmas card Collection: she had a mind-blowing 10,677 different cards [and the sort of record that re-enforces my opinion that the GB of R ran out of proper record-holders aeons ago]) the future of the robin does seem to be reasonably secure. Estimates of the population in the UK suggest that they’re one of just a handful of species to have increased in recent years, and unless they start viciously attacking allotment-owners and pensioners putting out plants in their backyards that shouldn’t change. I hope not anyway. Iit’s a treat to wake up to a robin’s rich song in the suburbs where I live, and I dare say that sentiment would be echoed right across the country, though probably not as movingly as the lines from William Blake’s furious poem “Auguries of Innocence“:
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage
Well said, Mr Blake, you “glorious luminary” you…
Photographs copyright Charlie Moores