The robin is arguably the most familiar British garden bird, and with its confiding nature and attractive plumage it has endeared itself to generations of gardeners and wildlife lovers. Other birds are just as conspicuous in winter, yet it is the robin that is most associated with Christmas.
When the first Christmas cards were sent in the mid-19th century, they were delivered by postmen wearing bright red coats. These postmen were nicknamed “robins” or “redbreasts” and the most popular early cards depicted robins often carrying letters in their beaks, to represent them.
Another explanation for why robins are associated with Christmas comes from an old Christian legend in which the robin got its red breast when it was pierced by a thorn from Christ’s crown as he hung from the cross.
A third story says that there was a log fire in the stable in which Jesus was born which had started to burn strongly. A robin noticing that Mary was distracted placed itself between the flames and the baby to prevent Jesus from being burnt. As the robin fluffed out his feathers to protect the baby, they were scorched by the heat and the red mark was passed onto subsequent generations of robins as a sign of its bravery.
However, early Christmas cards rarely showed religious or winter images, instead favouring flowers, fairies, and other designs that looked forward to the beginning of spring. And as the second explanation is an Easter tale it is more likely that the first explanation is correct and the second and third were added later.
In Victorian times the robin symbolism was so popular they were even killed to provide feathers for decorating Christmas cards. They also portrayed dead robins on Christmas cards as killing a wren or a robin was a good-luck ritual performed in late December. Although we may see a dead bird depicted on a Christmas card as rather morbid and not something you want to send to a loved one, for Victorians they were simply wishing good cheer to the recipient.
Today, we are much fonder of the robin and in the 1960s in a poll in The Times it was voted Britain’s favourite bird although it was never officially adopted as the national bird. In 2015 there was another survey to find Britain’s favourite bird with the robin once again crowned the winner with 34% of the vote. The barn owl came second with 12% and the blackbird third with 11%. David Lindo, otherwise known as The Urban Birder, who organised the vote asked the government to officially recognise the robin as Britain’s National Bird, but as far as we’re aware this never happened.
Despite its cheerful nature, the robin is an aggressive species with males sometimes fighting to the death to defend their territory. Unlike many other birds, robins don’t join flocks in autumn and winter and remain on their own, singing loudly throughout the season to proclaim their territory. What sounds like a cheerful winter song to us is actually a warning to other robins who come too close.
Male and female robins are virtually identical in appearance with brown upperparts, wing, tail, and crown, a grey band along the sides of the breast, a white belly, and of course the famous “red breast”.
As we can see, the red breast is actually orange and that’s because the bird was given its name before the English language had a word for the colour orange. The earliest recorded use of the word was in the 13th century when it referred to the fruit. It wasn’t until the early 16th century that orange was used as a colour name. Other examples of things that are orange but are called red include the red kite, the red deer, the red squirrel, and red-headed people.
The robin’s original name was rudduc. an Anglo-Saxon word meaning little red one. In the medieval era it was common to give familiar species human names and the robin was renamed Robert redbreast or Robert ruddock. By the Tudor era this had been shortened to Robin, a diminutive of Robert, and eventually robin stuck.
Robins are early breeders and although some may begin nest-building as early as January most breed between March and August. They build a cup-shaped nest made from grass and leaves and lined with hair and are famous for nesting in all sorts of unusual places including terracotta plant pots, wellington boots, and even post boxes.
Robins usually lay 2 clutches a season of 4-6 white or buff eggs lightly spotted with red. Although it is often mistakenly associated with blue eggs these are laid by the American robin which is a member of the thrush family and no relation to the European robin.
Baby robins have no red in their plumage and are a rather dull, spotty brown colour. They begin to develop their red breast feathers in the late summer when they are about 2 or 3 months old after they have been through a partial moult.
Robins are found in most UK gardens and one of the tamest wild birds happily feeding alongside gardeners as they work. They will even take live foods such as worms from the hand, and can often be found hanging around back doors waiting for someone to feed them in the morning.
In very harsh winters they will become even more confiding as they are vulnerable to food shortages caused by ice and snow. As well as insects, robins will feed on seeds and fruits and are welcome visitors to bird tables where they will tuck into kitchen scraps such as grated cheese, breadcrumbs, and pieces of bacon rind.
Happy Christmas from the Bird Spot team x