Nature Notes: The robin - the bird most synonymous with winter

As we approach the winter solstice both daylight and bird song are in short supply to brighten the day and lift the soul. Two bird species can be relied on for a bit of winter song, however, the tiny wren which blasts out its song throughout the winter, normally unseen from deep cover and the robin.

Friday, 13th December 2019, 2:00 pm
A robin in his natural winter surroundings. Picture by Tim Melling
A robin in his natural winter surroundings. Picture by Tim Melling

It was the robin that cheered me up as I trudged to work last week, perched out on a branch whistling its tuneful but somewhat melancholy song.

There isn’t a bird that is more synonymous with winter and especially Christmas than the robin. It can be seen adorning many a mantelpiece on the front of a Christmas card, with a snowy scene in the background.

Why does the robin appear on Christmas cards?

A robin being fed from the hand. Picture by David Boorman

It can be traced back to 19th century when the men that delivered the post were dressed in smart vermilion waistcoats and the Victorian’s christened them ‘robins’.

It wasn’t long before they started to appear on Christmas cards often with a letter in the beak, as if they were delivering the mail.

Robins are also really conspicuous at this time of year as the UK population is swelled with arrivals from the much colder areas of continental Europe.

They are also commonly found in our gardens, following any human occupant around as they dig and weed in hope of a worm or two. As the weather becomes more harsh, robins can become incredibly tame.

I used to work in a large town park and couple of chaps who walked in the park everyday had the robins trained to feed from from their hands.

The name ‘robin’ is relatively new. The Anglo-Saxons called the robin ‘Rudduc’ for the ruddiness of its breast. The name ‘robin redbreast’ has been recorded in use since the 15th century and this was often shortened to just redbreast – indeed Wordsworth, who mentions robins in no fewer than than fourteen of his poems refers to them always as redbreasts.

It wasn’t until 1952 that the British Ornithologists Union adopted robin as an alternative to redbreast.

There is much folklore and myth surrounding the redbreast. One of the most famous legends describes how the robin, plucking thorns from Christ’s crown of thorns, wounded himself and was blessed by saviour.

There are several links to the idea of the ‘charitable robin’, perhaps another link to Christmas, a famous example coming from ‘Babes in the Wood’ when the children have died of the cold:

No burial this pretty pair

From any man receives

Till robin redbreast piously

Covers them with leaves

It is almost as if the robin has always been a protected species here in Britain. It is rarely caged or eaten as it is on the continent. There was widely held belief that to bring harm to a robin brought evil consequences to them that did harm.

If it is a white Christmas this year, do spare a thought for robin redbreast in your garden. A gift of a few mealworms or even just some kitchen scraps will keep him going through the cold spells.

*The previous Nature Notes on otters was incorrectly credited. It was written by Ceris Aston. We apologise for the error.