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Well, as Christmas approaches, there can only be one candidate for this month’s subject, Britain’s favourite bird, the Robin. This cheeky little chappie consistently comes top of the popularity stakes and in 2015 the public voted it as our unofficial national bird.
So what is it that makes the Robin so appealing? Perhaps it’s partly because its presence brightens up a winter day, when there seems to be little else around. And it’s actually one of the only British birds that sings at this time of year. In the spring it joins the chorus of other birds who are establishing their territories and vying for a mate, but it continues to sing throughout the winter as a means of maintaining it’s territory. Again, unlike most other birds, both the male and female sing and both sexes have the same plumage, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. But either way, there is probably nothing more plaintive than a robin singing out its slightly mournful song as the winter light fades.
Robins are also quite comfortable around humans, at least here in Britain. They will join you when you’re gardening, in the hope you’ll turn over a tasty morsel and are sometimes tame enough to feed from people’s hands. Apparently, their continental cousins are much more shy and wary, possibly because small birds are hunted elsewhere. The robin pictured here was seeking out insects from amongst a log pile at the Rec and stayed for quite a while, allowing me to get within 3 to 4 feet of it.
But despite its endearing Christmas card image, these are feisty, highly territorial birds and if another robin encroaches on their patch they will attack it and have been known to kill a rival. We had to bear this in mind when we put 2 robin nest boxes in the Rec earlier this year. We made sure that they were buried deep in a hedge, and definitely on opposite sides of the park.
Unfortunately like many small birds, the robin is very short lived and few survive for more than a year. But during that time they will try to raise 2 to 3 broods, and will sometimes nest in quite wacky locations such as old boots, kettles or teapots that happen to be lying around, and all manner of objects; a further endearing trait…….at least if you’re not wanting to use the teapot!!
Robins feature quite strongly in folklore and in children’s nursery rhymes such as ‘Little Robin Redbreast, and ‘The North Wind doth blow, And we shall have snow, And what will poor Robin do then, Poor thing’. But the strangest of all is the rather macabre “Who Killed Cock Robin’ which has many different theories as to it’s origin.
But it is the bird’s association with Christmas that is probably what most people think of when they think of Robins. They appear everywhere and especially on greetings cards. This tradition dates back to Victorian times when the welcome sight of the postman, who was dressed in a red uniform, lead to them being affectionately nicknamed ‘Robins’. Some of the first Christmas cards featured actual robins carrying envelopes in their beaks, and so the custom was established.
There is also a Christmas fable about how the Robin acquired its red breast. It was said that whilst the Holy Family were gathered in the stable, a small brown bird flew down to fan the flames of the fire and warm the baby Jesus. In doing so, the bird scorched its breast which then turned red, and has remained so ever since
Thankfully our Robins seem to be one of the few species that are thriving and are not of conservation concern. And one or two of them have thankfully decided that the Rec is a good place to set up home.
Words and photographs by Denise Long