The Robin – our smallest bird of ‘pray’?

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You might expect to hear sublime singing in a cathedral, but last Christmas I was surprised to hear the melodious notes of a robin in Winchester Cathedral. At first, I thought it was my imagination, but then I saw the little bird perched on the magnificent carved choir screen. It paused, head cocked, watching me with curiosity. I hoped it would sing for me again, but it flew away, before landing nonchalantly on the back of a chair. It behaved as if it owned the place. I was later told that the robin (and its mate) had taken up residence in these ancient lodgings and were being fed by the priests.

Meanwhile in Liverpool last year, a robin settled in the giant Christmas tree as workmen hauled it into the Cathedral. Apparently, the bird chirped along with a few services, much to the delight of the congregation, but had departed by New Year.

Should we be surprised that robins seem to enjoy the company of humans? We might suppose that in miserable weather they are simply seeking shelter, although a cold and draughty cathedral hardly offers a cosy berth.

And that wouldn’t explain the robin which greeted me in a hot and humid glasshouse at Kew Gardens this summer. It sat on a low wall beside a palm tree, coolly watching the sweltering tourists. The robin’s jaunty appearance is so bound up with our notions of Christmas, that it seemed particularly out of place in such a tropical environment.

There seem to be lots of robins around this winter. Whenever I work in the garden, it’s not long before I hear that familiar ‘tic tic’ from a low branch or fencepost. If the ground is too hard for worms and insects, the robin tuts impatiently until I have filled the bird feeder, barely waiting for me to step away before sweeping in for a snack. Preferring to take food from the ground, it will also dip onto the path, flicking its wings and tail before making off with any seeds which have spilled. The robin’s boldness has led to many reports of these cheeky birds accepting food from an outstretched hand, and anyone digging a flower bed can expect to have a robin tailing them for upturned worms.

Of course, unless a robin has particularly distinctive markings, it’s impossible to tell one from another. During the winter, some of the British birds may have flown to warmer climes, and robins from the colder reaches of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe may temporarily take their place. Although a little less feisty than during the breeding season, the robin is still highly territorial, and its beautiful, liquid song warns potential interlopers to keep out. Along with the nightingale, the robin will also sing after sunset, given the artificial light of a street lamp (or Christmas lights, perhaps).

Every year, the shops are full of Christmas cards which feature the nation’s ‘favourite’ bird (as declared in a UK poll in 2015). This might be because the robin’s scarlet plumage on its chest and face give it an appealing appearance, and it stands out rather well against a background of a traditional (if unrealistic), snow-decked Christmas landscape. Or is it because the Victorians, who popularised the sending of festive greetings cards, nicknamed postmen ‘robin redbreast’ because they wore red jackets? There are also legendary Christian connotations. Did this plucky little bird get its red breast from a drop of Christ’s blood at the crucifixion, or was it burned while fanning the flames to keep baby Jesus warm?

One thing is for sure, this colourful little bird is a firm favourite in town and country alike. If you want to help the RSPB monitor these, and other garden birds, you can sign up to participate in the Big Garden Birdwatch in January 2018. Registration opens on 13 December 2107 with more details at www.rspb.org.uk.

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