17 February 2015

British birds: Little Robin Redbreast

Cheeky and cute, little robin redbreast delights us all with its antics, both in the back garden and in woodland, and is such a favourite with the British that it was declared National Bird on 15 December 1960.

It should come as no surprise then that Robin is the name of one of the most loved characters in English children’s literature (Christopher Robin) and the country’s favourite outlaw (Robin Hood). There’s nothing like a little positive word association to help sell books or create popular heroes.

Its bright red breast makes this dainty charmer instantly recognisable and one look from its overly large beady eyes is enough to make me reach for the spade, to turn over some soil so robin can devour a worm or two. Its penchant for worms and other tiny insects is one reason the robin appears frequently to befriend gardeners – it's not really being friendly, it’s after the food you might turn up for it! And robins can often be seen following people out walking, for the same reason. Next time you’re out for a wander in a woodland, be kind and scuff up the leaves – a little robin will almost certainly fly down to see what food treats you’ve uncovered.

"Glasgow Coat of Arms" by Alex Spade.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Robins do seem to be the most tame of Britain’s
wild birds, a trait that has been remarked upon for many centuries. As noted in Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey’s Birds Britannica [Chatto & Windus, London, 2005, pp.335-9], the earliest record of a robin’s tameness dates from the 6th century AD when St Serf of Culross was known to feed the robin that alighted on his head or shoulder while he prayed. The story goes that the robin was later killed by some of St Serf’s disciples but then brought back to life by Kentigern, who went on to be canonised as St Mungo and founded Glasgow’s Cathedral. No surprise then that a robin can be found in Glasgow’s Coat of Arms.

The robin’s association with the Church doesn’t stop there. From Birds Britannica I have learnt that robins have often been recorded visiting religious buildings: ‘During Charles II’s reign a robin regularly entered and sang in Canterbury Cathedral, apparently shaming the Puritan community of Kent by its regular church attendance’ and, in 1948, both The Times newspaper and BBC Radio reported that a pair of robins were nesting in the lectern at Ringsfield church in Suffolk.

The idea that the robin got its red breast by trying to remove a thorn from Jesus’ brow before the crucifixion is another religious connection, though that myth was almost certainly an attempt by early church historians to integrate the popular robin into their Christian stories.

The fact that the robin is frequently depicted 
on Christmas cards has, of course, nothing at all to do with religion. The practice of sending Christmas cards was first popularised by the Victorians in the 1860s and the postmen delivering the cards wore uniform red waistcoats. They were soon nicknamed ‘Robin Redbreasts’ and illustrators took up the idea, showing red-breasted robins delivering the mail (as this early Christmas card shows).

Although robins are usually considered to be good omens and bringers of luck – witness for example William Blake’s classic lines: ‘A robin redbreast in a cage / Puts all Heaven in a rage’ – robins also have a rather eerie association with death. Ancient wisdom warns that a robin in the house means death will soon follow, an idea I find intriguing as in my homeland, New Zealand, the same idea is attributed by the indigenous Maori people to the piwakawaka or fantail. The idea that birds are regularly seen as portents of calamity and death appears to be common amongst many cultures.

As I write this post, I can hear a robin singing in the back garden, a pretty melody but one probably intended as a territorial defence rather than a celebration. The robin may look small and dainty but it’s a warrior when defending its patch, though I suspect, as Frances Hodgson Burnett did, that some of the robin’s performance is simply to show off.

‘The robin flew from his swinging spray of ivy on to the top of the wall and he opened his beak and sang a loud, lovely trill, merely to show off. Nothing in the world is quite as adorably lovely as a robin when he shows off - and they are nearly always doing it. ~Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

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