So just how did our favourite bird become associated with Christmas? Pip Webster explains...
How did our favourite feathered-friend, the robin, become associated with Christmas?
Some things don’t change: the robin topped a recent poll to choose the UK’s national bird, just as it did in the 1960s. Robins have been man’s companions when tilling the soil for centuries, perched on their spindly legs, head cocked to one side, watching with their bright, round eyes.
The Anglo-Saxons knew our familiar robin redbreast as “rudduc” from the colour of its breast, and it was not until 1549 that robin was recorded as a bird name, gradually replacing over the centuries both “ruddock” and “redbreast”. A diminutive of Robert, it seems to be a personalised bird name given to our favourite British feathered friend.
The pleasing and highly recognisable orange-red breast colour is actually a badge of warning to other robins to keep away. Robins are very territorial and are one of the few birds that sing throughout the autumn and winter, declaring their ownership of a particular patch of land.
And, rare in the bird world, the females sing too, defending their own individual feeding territory. Our ancestors, unable to distinguish between the sexes, decided that Jenny Wren was hen to Cock Robin. It now appears that the size of the red bib and the width of the grey feathers that frame it allow other birds to judge a robin’s gender and age.
Robins feed mainly on insects, although they also eat berries and worms, watching patiently for food on the ground or vegetation from a convenient perch on a low branch before flitting down to grab a meal. Any bird interrupting its foraging, such as dunnocks which have similar habitats, will be briefly attacked, but encroaching robins – if not frightened away by songs or angry “tick” calls accompanied by regular flicks of the wings – are threatened by that fluffed out red breast. On rare occasions, a persistent interloper – male or female – can be violently attacked, resulting in serious injury or death. Juvenile robins are speckled buff-brown and do not develop the red coloration until two to three months old to avoid being attacked in territorial disputes.
By the end of December some early robins are beginning to pair up. The autumn songs are mellow, sung from a low perch, almost out of sight but, for a few days in mid-winter, a male robin may sing shorter, cheerful phrases from a high perch in the centre of his territory. After that it’s up to the female to breach the territorial boundaries. If she is accepted, a courtship display involving singing and following may result – though the female may flirt with several different males before deciding on her mate. After their mid-winter fling, the robins settle back to life as before, though they tolerate each other in a combined territory defended by the song of the male – the only outward sign that they are a pair until they begin to breed several months later.
Robins seem to have few close relatives in the bird world and may be the only representatives of their genus. They were formerly thought to be members of the thrush family, but are now considered to be related to the Old World flycatchers. They may be cousins of the nightingale that migrates to Africa for the winter.
In winter, the robin puffs up its plumage to insulate its body against cold winds and was reported to become more “familiar with man” in 16th Century winters.
The association of the robin with Christmas cards probably arose from the bright red coat of the mail uniform of the Victorian postman, nicknamed “Robin”. Birds first appeared with the commercial posting of Christmas cards in the 1860s and in the earliest designs, the robin was often illustrated bearing an envelope in its bill.
I send my “round robin” by more environmentallyfriendly email these days and I’ll take this opportunity of wishing all of you a very merry Christmas.