After delighting us with his informative pieces about some of the Marsh’s larger bird inhabitants, writer and naturalist Mark Newson turns his attention in this edition to one of our favourite birds – and one which is especially associated with our festive season…
Perhaps our best-loved and most familiar garden bird with its beautiful song – which can be heard all year round – and with its striking red breast, the robin is more often seen at this time of year on Christmas cards.
This is because our first postmen wore red waistcoats and were nicknamed ‘robins’. Pictures of the bird against a snow-covered background make a very appealing image. Because they sing so close to us as we dig or tidy up the garden, most of us recognise their song with its melodic warble. Their song changes over the winter months, however, and they have a sharp ‘tick’ sound which indicates territorial defence or alarm.
It is one of the first birds to sing in the morning, and dawn is the best time for them to show off their song as it is at this time of the day that the air carries sound better. They also lay their eggs in the morning – five or six of white with red speckles.
They are companionable, especially if they see us on a regular basis, and some people are lucky enough to be able to feed them by hand. One such person was a Mr Quinn from Romney Marsh, who noticed that a robin would take the freshly overturned worms when he was digging his vegetable patch. He gradually tamed the bird to take mealworms from his hand by the back door. Then he got the idea of ringing a bell every time he was about to feed the bird, and very soon it recognised the sound. Now, every morning Mr Quinn rings the bell to announce breakfast, whereupon the robin flies straight into his hand.
And in 2015, a robin paid a daily visit to the shop at the headquarters of the RSPB in Bedfordshire. It came every morning like clockwork, heading straight for the room selling the charity’s wide range of birdseed. After eating its fill, it would fly onto the till, much to the amusement of customers. The bird was completely unfazed by the steady stream of staff, volunteers and visitors and naturally it became a great talking point and even made local headlines. This shows how reliant on us our garden birds can become during the winter, when insects and grubs are below frozen ground.
Despite their diminutive size and attractive appearance, they are aggressively territorial and are quick to drive away intruders. They can also be quite violent to their own kind, with many having their lives ended by the beak of an aggressor. Their location for a nest can often be found in an array of unusual places in our gardens: an old bucket or watering can; drainpipe or guttering; in sheds, garages and greenhouses and appropriately even in a letter-box!
The great poet William Wordsworth wrote about the robin in no less than 14 different poems:-
“In the first mild day of March
each minute sweeter than before,
the redbreast sings from the tall larch
that stands beside my door”.
In ‘The Redbreasts’, he related how, when his sister Dorothy was ill, a robin accommodated itself in her sickroom where “it used to sing and fan her face with its wings in a manner most touching”. Many other poets have written about this special bird including William Blake, who wrote: “a robin in a cage puts all heaven in a rage”, while Michael Drayton offered: “Covering with moss the dead’s unclosed eye, the little redbreast teacheth charity”.
This theme also occurs in the story of ‘Babes in the Wood’, when the children have died of cold:-
“No burial this pretty pair,
from any man receives,
‘til robin redbreast piously
covers them with leaves”.
There are several early references to the bird which have this distinctly funereal overtone, as in the 1744 ballad ‘Who killed Cock Robin?’. There is a widespread belief that to harm a robin brings evil consequences, with trembling of the hands, sickness and harm inflicted upon animals belonging to the aggressor. Another legend describes how the robin, plucking thorns from Christ’s crown, wounded itself and was blessed by the Saviour.
I don’t think I know of any other bird that has had so much written about them – they even have different names in various parts of the country. It’s called the reddock in Dorset, Robin Ruck in the North, The Red Bird in Wales and Bob in Nottinghamshire.
In 1695, a robin flew into Westminster Abbey and perched on the coffin of Queen Mary. The bird came back day after day as she lay in state, and an anonymous poet wrote:-
“The robin may have lost his mate,
so hath King William his,
and that he may well match again,
our hearty prayer is”.
The King never married again.
So this festive time of year is a timely reminder of the robin’s place in our hearts, cultural heritage – and in our gardens…