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.
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.
Though 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.
The 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.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.
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.