So just how did our favourite bird be­come as­so­ci­ated with Christ­mas? Pip Web­ster ex­plains...

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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.

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