December

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

RobinThe bird most associated with Christmas is the robin, which features on so many cards at this time of year. It was back in the 1860s that Britain’s favourite bird (as declared by the Times newspaper after a national poll) first appeared on a Christmas card, carrying a letter in its beak. The postmen at this time wore a red tunic while at work and were nicknamed “redbreasts” – hence the robin redbreast delivering the card.

Legend has it that the ruddock, as the robin was also known in days gone by (which simply meant “red” in old English) got its red breast by attending to Jesus while he was being crucified on the cross. It was just a plain brown bird once, but seeing Christ on the cross in obvious pain, one flew up and tried to remove some thorns from the crown that had been placed on his head and then sang softly to him while sitting on his shoulder. It was while the bird was tending Jesus that a drop of blood fell onto the robin’s breast, staining it for evermore.

We perhaps notice robins more at this time of year as their numbers swell as a result of migrant robins escaping the colder weather of Scandinavia and central Europe, to spend the short winter days in the milder climate of Britain. Robins are also one of the few birds to sing throughout the winter months. Indeed, their songs get louder and more prolonged at this time of year as they are beginning to pair up for the forthcoming breeding season.

Robins may look cute, but they are fiercely territorial and will chase and fight intruders that come into their area. The territory varies in size depending on how good the habitat is, but on average it is just over an acre in size, so an area the size of a professional football pitch could have around six territorial robins all singing at once – so no wonder we notice them!

Fights between robins have been known to end in death for the loser, and it is not just other robins who need to be careful, as the little greyish brown dunnock is also detested, probably because they compete for a very similar diet of small worms and insects.

Peter Thompson
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