The Early Bird


Robin ( Erithacus rubecula)

Last night, as I was having a final look around the garden before the sun set, I heard a bird singing. From the cherry tree next door, a Robin was sending a rather lonely, thin little song out into world. It was a hesitant sound, with something of a wheel in need of greasing about it, but nonetheless, it cheered me to think that someone was confident enough to be staking an early claim to my back garden. If you would like to have a listen for yourself, there is a link to a Robin’s song in the RSPB webpage.

And once I’d noticed the bird in my back garden, it seemed that Robins were everywhere.

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Robin in a feisty mood

As I walked up the road towards Coldfall Wood, two Robins were having what my Nan would have described as ‘a bit of a barney’ in the crab apple tree. Both birds were fluffed up and flying sorties at one another, making an agitated chinking sound. Cute and cuddly they may be, but these two rivals were deadly serious in their animosity. They were oblivious to everything else that was going on and so was I – I almost fell over a pram in my haste to get a few photos. Robins are notoriously territorial, and, in the breeding season, are said to attack anything that vaguely resembles a rival, including bunches of red feathers  and small birds belonging to other species.

IMG_1156Though in the UK Robins are often called ‘Robin Redbreast’, it is quite clear that their chests are more orange than scarlet. But regardless of the accuracy of their name, they are symbols of charity and compassion. One story has it that their breast colouration came about when they tried to remove the crown of thorns from Christ’s brow, and were injured themselves. Another story tells that the feathers were burnt when the Robins brought water to souls in the fiery pit of Hell, and indeed one Welsh name for the bird is brou-rhuddyn – ‘Breast-burnt’. However, the stories surrounding Robins date back further than Christianity – they were sacred to Thor, for example. No bird is held in greater affection in Britain: the Robin features on Christmas cards as a symbol of hope and energy in the snowy midwinter, and it is an unusual person who isn’t delighted to have one in their garden. This is not the case on the Continent, however, where Robins are fair game and can end up on a skewer like so many other songbirds.

IMG_1152The European Robin is a member of the Old World Flycatcher family, which means that it is related to such rarer birds as the Stonechat and the Whinchat. None of the other members of the family have that distinctive rotund shape, however, and none of them are as tame and confiding as the Robin.

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) ("Saxicola rubetra -Belgium -male-8" by Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium - Braunkehlchen (Saxicola rubetra), Warchetal bei Hünningen, OstbelgienUploaded by snowmanradio. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) (“Saxicola rubetra -Belgium -male-8” by Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium

European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (By Amurfalcon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( )

European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (By Amurfalcon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( )

As the name would suggest, all Old World Flycatchers are insectivorous, which explains why the Robin is often portrayed as the gardener’s companion, waiting on a branch for a human to turn over the soil and reveal a tasty worm or grub. However, there is evidence that Robins were following wild boar about prior to our arrival in Britain, for exactly the same reason. In truth, humans are just substitutes for hairy porcines as far as the Robin is concerned.

The European Robin is also very different from the American Robin, which is a thrush rather than a flycatcher, and is several times larger than our bird.


American Robin (Turdus migratorius) (“Turdus-migratorius-002”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

I find some of the folklore about Robins particularly evocative. There is a belief, for example, that if you kill a Robin, the hand that did the deed will always shake, as if some of the febrile energy of the bird has passed into your very bones to punish you for your iniquity. William Blake wrote that ‘A Robin Redbreast in a cage/puts all Heaven in a rage’. This little bird that has lived alongside us for so long that it is surrounded with a protective web of folklore, forbidding humans to harm it. How unfortunate that the rest of the animal world does not have  similar prohibitions against cruelty and wanton slaughter.

Back garden Robin ( Erithacus rubecula)

10 thoughts on “The Early Bird

  1. Katya

    Beautiful insights and writing. During a recent outing on a frozen day here in New York, I came upon an American Robin paroling a garbage container. We regarded one another. I was close enough to study its beautiful form, but it jumped away in a flash, lured to a tray of discarded, tasty sushi bits conveniently nearby. I walked on, leaving it to enjoy its fortuitous bounty in peace.

    1. Bug Woman

      American Robins are very fine birds indeed. I have a great fondness for Blue Jays as well. I have such admiration for creatures that can thrive in the city (as you might have noticed 🙂 )

  2. London Details

    Please don’t lump everyone on the Continent together as robin catchers. Hunting small birds is only done in a few countries and I am sure most people on the other side of the Channel think them as cute as we do in the UK and love to see them in their garden.

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi London Details, you’re right, or course – the vast majority of people would not dream of hurting a Robin, wherever they live, and folk all over the world care about their wildlife. My point was that the Robin has a special place in the hearts of the English, whereas in other places it doesn’t. And also, the scale of the hunting of songbirds in Mediterranean Europe and further afield is surprisingly widespread: this National Geographic article outlines some of the problems surrounding the practice It outrages me, and I suppose this came through in my piece.

      1. London Details

        You are right of course that there are still idiots who think they need to hunt defenceless little creatures. I just objected to your sweeping statement of ‘the Continent’. Robins are also depicted quite often on Xmas cards in Germany, Holland and Austria. Possibly in other countries as well, but I don’t get cards from anywhere else so wouldn’t know.

      2. Bug Woman

        Ah, I had no idea that Robins were depicted on other Christmas cards, thank you! And I will watch out for the sweeping statements in future. Things are often more complicated and nuanced that they seem. Lovely piece on Bartok’s statue on your blog btw.

  3. London Details

    Despite my comment, I do like your blog immensely and always enjoy reading about the little creatures and plants you spot. Life’s enjoyments are all about the small details, aren’t they?

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you, London Details – I am very pleased that you cared enough to let me know that my post was inaccurate, and to give me a chance to do something about it. What we have in common here, I think, is a passion for the small, the overlooked, the neglected and the disregarded, and a determination to celebrate them, and this is best served by being open to other people’s experience and knowledge. I am always happy to be told when I’ve got something wrong, because it gives me a chance to act to put it right.


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