I have acquired a new friend to share my garden with me in recent weeks.
After a dearth of songbirds all summer long, one colourful newcomer has drawn himself … herself? … to my attention. My new friend is a member of the Erithacus rubecula family, the genetic name Erithacus coming from the Greek ‘erithakos’, which was an ill-defined small bird which was usually found in hedges, the specific name ‘rubecula’ being added later by the Romans, not because of the bird’s red plumage … as the similarity between ‘rubecula’ and ‘ruby’ might suggest … but because ‘rubeus’ means ‘bramble’ and ‘cola’ … no, it’s not a soft drink … means ‘inhabitant’. We know the bird as the robin, an apparently docile small bird which is seldom seen during the warmer months of the year, disappearing into the foliage of the shrubs which are an essential part of any robin-friendly environment to escape the attention of humans or … to be fair … other possible sources of danger like cats, dogs or raptors.
However, come the colder weather, many European robins … especially in those countries presently conjoined under the name ‘United Kingdom’, which prefer to live in shrub-rich parks and gardens rather than in the woods preferred by their European mainland counterparts … become much more amenable to human company. The reason is not far to seek; the farmer, the gardener or the allotment carer, turning over their soil at the end of the summer to allow winter frosts to break it down into smaller fragments to facilitate next year’s planting, exposes a variety of small, earth-frequenting creatures, many of which are welcome food to this insectivorous bird. The robin is also a great believer in human magnanimity in the matter of bird tables and food scraps; and it is simply cupboard love which drives this apparent bid to become our friend and has nothing to do with a liking for human company.
The European robin is, in fact, a very long way removed from the attractive, friendly little bird so beloved of Christmas card artists. Fiercely territorial, it defends what it sees as its territory, attacking many ‘intruders’ … including other robins … fiercely and with undoubtedly evil intent. Woe betide the sparrow, the blackbird, the thrush, any species of tit or even the very much larger collared dove which is discovered seeking to enter a robin’s territory in search of food. Few members of the animal kingdom attack members of the opposite sex of their own kind: but the robin does, both males and females sharing this unpleasant characteristic, although the female is slightly more tolerant of his company than he is of hers. The similarity of appearance of male and female robins … similar size and well-nigh identical colouration … has led some people to suggest that robins don’t immediately recognise a potential partner outside the mating season: but I find this difficult to believe; and robin on robin attacks account for up to 10% of adult robin deaths. In fact, most robins have no great life expectancy, only a minority surviving ‘childhood.’ The young chicks … poullets … leave the nest before they are able to fly and are easy prey until they develop the skill of perching on a low branch watching intently for any movement which betrays an insect on the ground; pouncing on it; and flying back to an observation post to await their next victim.
A number of legends seek to explain the robin’s distinctive red feathers and its Christian association with Christmas. One claims that an all-brown robin sought to comfort Christ by singing to him as he was crucified, the blood from his wounds staining the bird’s breast. Much more prosaically, the association with Christmas more probably arises from the fact that postmen in Victorian Britain were nicknamed ‘Robins’ by reason of their red jackets and the robin featured on Christmas cards is an emblem of the postman delivering them.