• Chris Pendleton

The Robin - symbol of Christmas

In 1961 a Times survey declared the Robin to be Britain's National Bird, and it‘s not hard to see why. With their bright orange-red breasts and perky manner, everyone in the UK immediately recognises this cheery bird. Robins seem to really like people too and, anyone who digs a garden will quickly make a new friend as their local robin tucks into the invertebrates they uncover

Robins will often enter our homes and can easily be encouraged to take food from the hand. Writing in the 1920's, Viscount Grey of Falloden describes how he trained Robins to take meal worms. Poor, peaceable Grey, perhaps jaundiced by his stint as Foreign Secretary in the Great War, was 'disgusted' though by his robins' endless territorial fighting.

But why are British robins so loved? After all Erithacus rubecula occurs right across europe and beyond. Well, it's because our sub-species, melophilus, is genuinely more confiding than european birds. Most european robins skulk in woods, whereas here they live in our gardens too. Some say it's because British Robins historically were not taken for food. Possibly, but countless Victorian Robins were captured for the cage-bird trade, or killed to provide milliners with decorative feathers.

Robins have always enjoyed a positive mythology, their ruddy breasts either being ascribed to scorching as Robins thoughtfully fanned failing hearth fires with their wings, or to staining by Christ’s blood when a kind Robin removed thorns from His crown.

The Robin's habit of accompanying the digging gardener is related to their instinct to watch large woodland animals that stir the leaf-litter. In Europe they often follow wild boar which, like all pigs, are expert rooters-about in the soil. This age-old association is no doubt resuming as escaped boar colonise English woods again. Robins prefer insects but are omnivores, happily visiting bird tables for nuts and seeds and you can even buy special Robin mix.

Robins are legendarily pugnacious, ferociously attacking any rival venturing onto their turf. Recent studies show that 10% of all male Robin mortality maybe due to murder by rivals. Female Robins are only marginally more civilised, with 4% of their deaths resulting from conflict. After the summer moult they too establish individual territories which they’ll defend through the winter until spring, when they ally with a nearby male to form a pair. If the weather is good they'll build their nests as early as February, but April is more normal. Another engaging Robin habit is the tendency to build in odd places, such as a pair of wellies hanging in the shed, but the usual site is an ivy covered bank or low in a hedge. From late May, we can expect to see the spotty youngsters - hinting at their thrush ancestry - hopping around on our lawns. Many fall prey at this time to their great enemy, the domestic cat.

The Robin’s song is tristful but sweet in the autumn and winter but bright and optimistic in the spring, so if you feed your Robin this winter, pretty soon you’ll hear his cheery song again.

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