Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Pembrokeshire Online CIC.
Here is a special festive treat from our Wildlife Correspondent, David Gardner!
THE ROBIN – A SPECIAL CHRISTMAS BIRD
Everybody loves a robin! With his beady black eyes, bright red breast, joyful song and trusting nature, the robin is one of our most familiar garden birds. Take a garden fork to the vegetable plot or flower bed and in all probability you will soon be joined by your local robin, his head cocked on one side watching, ready to pounce on anything edible that the fork turns up.
The robin (Erithacus rubecula) is a member of the thrush family and so is related to blackbirds and nightingales. European Robins are widely distributed and can be found in countries all across Europe and as far as central Siberia. They are also found in parts of Asia, North Africa, Turkey and the Azores.
The males, in particular, are very territorial and will announce their presence by singing loudly from high branches and defend their patch energetically, sometimes to the death. Territorial disputes have been shown to account for 10% of adult robin mortalities. Around ¾ of young robins will die before the end of their first year with predation and adverse weather being the principal causes of death. Cats are by far the most destructive taking 15 times more robins than any other predator. If they can survive into their 2nd year they can live for several years with an age of 13 years having been recorded. They do not pair for life, establishing a breeding couple for the spring and early summer. The nest is built in hollows in tree trunks, holes in banks etc. and famously discarded utensils such as old kettles and buckets as well as corners in sheds and garages. The two sexes are similar in appearance and have similar songs, but the young birds lack the red breast of the adult, having a brown speckled breast until after the first moult.
JUVENILE ROBIN AT FIRST MOULT
At this time of year, after the summer breeding season and the autumn moult, robins are looking at their sparkling best and are constantly on the move looking for food to see them through the cold winter months. Most will not migrate further than 5 km from their home ground, but a few of our more adventurous birds, mainly females, will pack their bags and chase the sun across the Channel as far as Spain or Portugal. As if to fill the gap, birds from the continent escaping the cold winters of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia come over to join the ranks of our resident robins. These visitors are paler in colour and are more shy being forest rather than garden dwellers on the Continent.
ILLUSTRATION OF A VICTORIAN POSTMAN (by Peter Jackson)
Robins, or redbreasts as they were formerly known, have been part of the British culture for centuries. Voted Britain’s national bird in a poll in 1960, the robin gave its name to the first postmen in the Victorian era as, being officers of the Crown, they wore red jackets as part of their uniform. This link between the bird and the postal service gave rise to the portrayal of robins on early Christmas cards, with the birds often shown delivering the post. Robins are now a central element of Christmas, appearing in many guises on all sorts of merchandise and festive decorations.
A CHRISTMAS CARD FROM 1934
For centuries, robins have also become part of folklore, being variously associated with charity, good luck, bad luck, compassion, fire and death. Much of the mythology centres around the robin’s red breast, which is often related to fire or blood. Thor, the god of thunder in Norse mythology held the robin as a sacred storm cloud bringer, and, like the raven, is said to have brought fire from heaven. In the old folklore traditions of Great Britain a robin pecking at the window or entering the house is said to portend a death, and the 16th C. folktale “Babes in the Wood’ had the robin covering the dead children with leaves and moss.
On the other hand, it was considered to be extremely unlucky to kill a robin and if a farmer causes the death he should expect his barn to catch fire and his cows to produce milk the colour of blood. Sadly, these threats did not stop the late Victorians from using robin skins to decorate ladies’ hats, a practice that thankfully died out. As the New Year approaches it is worth remembering that, according to tradition, you should make a wish when you see your first robin of the season, but do it quickly for if the bird flies off before you make your wish you will receive no good luck for the next 12 months! Serious stuff!
On a happier note, largely thanks to the UK robin’s trusting nature and their willingness to live near to people and their gardens and bird tables, the future of the species appears to be assured. They are one of the few species that serenade us with their song all year round and are also one of the first birds to open the dawn chorus, often singing in the hours of darkness. If we keep looking after them they will hopefully continue to delight us and our children for generations to come and to give us a taste of spring even in the cold winter months.
A HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL MY READERS!
———- o0o ———-
Please note that all photographs are Copyright protected. Prints in various sizes of any photographs used in the articles can be obtained by contacting the Author.
———- o0o ———-
David Gardner, Environmentalist and Photographer
—– o0o —–