British Wildlife of the Week
The quintessential Christmas bird, especially if Christmas cards are anything to go by, must surely be the robin. Small, approachable and endearingly dumpy, the robin is one of Britain’s best-loved birds, regularly topping any opinion poll that is carried out to find the nation’s favourite – most recently in 2015 when it received 34% of the votes (the runner-up, the barn owl, only received 12%). Alex certainly loves them, as evidenced by her recent article on whether you can keep them as pets (spoiler: you can’t and you shouldn’t). But where does the robin’s association with Christmas, and the winter season in general, originate?
According to legend, it was a robin who sang in Jesus’s ear to comfort him from his pain when he was dying on the cross. Back then, it is said that all robins were simply brown in colour, but the blood from Jesus’s wounds stained the bird’s breast red, and therefore all robins got the mark of Christ’s blood upon them (although that, of course, would have happened at Easter). Another story says that the robin’s red breast comes from when a robin fanned the flames of a fire in the stable to warm baby Jesus, burning itself in the process.
The robin’s inextricable link to the festive season seems to have arisen during Victorian Britain. To encourage people to use the new ‘Penny Post’ service in the 1840s, special greetings cards were produced that people could send to their friends and family. At the time, postmen wore red uniforms and were nicknamed ‘Robins’. It didn’t take long for an illustrator to design a card featuring a robin wearing a postman’s uniform and carrying a card in its beak. The link between the little bird and the person who brought Christmas greetings was clearly irresistible, and these Victorian cards soon cemented the robin as a cheerful herald of the festive season.
A final reason for the robin’s connection with Christmas is that it really is more active in winter than many of our other garden birds, and it often boldly comes to our doorsteps in search of food. This confidence, combined with its colourful breast, means that the robin is more likely to catch our eye at this time of year. And unusually for a British bird, robins sing all year round – even at Christmas. This is because, whereas most of our perching birds only hold and defend territories just before and during the breeding season, robins do so during the autumn and winter months, too. In fact, although robins seem friendly enough to us, often approaching humans who are offering tokens of food and sometimes even eating directly from our hands, they can be extremely aggressive and violent to one another. Rival robins involved in territorial disputes have been known to fight to the death.
Commonly pictured among snow-dusted holly berries or perched on a garden spade, fluffed up against the cold, the robin enjoys iconic status in British popular culture. Its connection with Christmas, which has only strengthened over the decades, is a combination of its tameness, bold colours, and the fact it becomes visibly feisty during a time of year when most other garden birds are keeping a low profile.
In the next British Wildlife of the Week (and our last one of 2020), we’ll be looking at that most celebrated of all animals associated with Christmas – the reindeer. But can you really find them in Britain…?