Girton Birdwatch - February 2009
Now that Christmas is over it seems a little less corny to write about a bird that needs no description and which is probably many people's favourite: the Robin. Moreover, it is not surprising that in 1961 the British Section of the International Council for Bird Preservation, after a long correspondence in The Times, declared the Robin to be Britain's national bird. David Lack, the pioneering world authority on Robins, believed at the time that the chest-puffing individualism and 'friendliness' of the bird was a fitting tribute to the British character. Indeed, it has often been noted that the British Robin is a much more companionable bird than its continental cousin and that any bird daring to sit, say, on a French spade would soon find a welcome in the cooking pot rather than in the garden or on the stereotypical Christmas card (Not that the British were averse to eating their favourite bird in the past). There is a touch of misplaced pride here - indeed conceit - as the British form is a separate race, melophilus, from the continental form (our bird has warmer brown upperparts and a more confiding nature) which is much more strongly attached to woodland habitats. The sexes look the same, although juveniles lack the obvious redbreast and are mainly a mottled brown, so do not assume that two Robins fighting in your garden (they are fiercely territorial) are necessarily male. Robins have a reputation for violence against their own kind, male or female, while a 'fight' may be an example of rather rough foreplay. In winter females also sing (singing often being a defence of territory) and hold territories of their own, and it is only when the cold is so severe that finding food takes precedence over every other activity, that Robins allow other members of their species to intrude on their winter territories.
The Robin has long had religious associations, part of which may be its recurrent association with dead or dying people. Traditionally Robins covered up the dead with leaves, linking up with legends of babes in the wood, but whether this correspondence is an extension of the bird's attendance upon spade-wielding gardeners and/or an interest in newly dug graves is difficult to fathom. Early church writers attempted to incorporate the Robin directly into the Christian story by suggesting that it had acquired its red breast by tugging at thorns in Jesus' brow but why it should have become so intimately and directly associated with Christmas is less easily explained. David Lack attempted to provide an explanation of the strong link with Christmas by suggesting that the bird first made its impact on the mail when the custom of sending Christmas cards took off commercially in the 1860's. In early cards the Robin was often shown carrying an envelope in its bill. Lack was of the opinion that the association hinged on the bright red coat of the mail uniform of the time, which also gave rise to 'Robin' becoming a nickname for a Victorian postman. Apparently a red-coated livery worn by other servicemen had inspired similar nicknames and Lack concluded that the birds depicted on both Christmas and valentine cards stemmed from the same association. However Cocker and Mabey point out that Robins had been incorporated into the imagery of Christmas, especially among urban artists, since the 18th century and, while accepting that the robin-postman link probably helped cement the connection, they believe its roots are much deeper. The Robin's reputation for friendliness, they argue, is at least 1500 year's old, and its renown as the bird of winter-cheer was well-established prior to the 1860s. They suggest that there may well be a dash of paganism in our choice of the Robin as the bird of Christmas and that, just like the holly wreath with its bright-red berries, it provides a splash of living colour in a dead winter world.
Robins are everywhere at present - mid-winter is when the female goes mate-hunting, she does the choosing, entering the undergrowth of the male's territory and, if tolerated for a few weeks, begins to accompany him in song - but less familiar birds are around the village. I was too late to report the Merlin which flew low past the riding stables in November, but January has seen a large flock of Golden Plover feeding in the fields adjacent to Washpit Lane. In breeding plumage these really are golden when seen clearly and in close-up, although the dusky face and black belly are more noticeable from a distance. At this time of year their plumage is much duller and without the black. The Golden Plover breeds on moorlands but in winter it moves, often in large flocks, to open fields, meadows, pastures and estuaries. Here, it is often joined by Lapwings, and it is also gratifying that significant numbers of this bird (by modern standards) were, in January, to be found in the farmer's field adjoining Girton Wood.