Wild & wonderful

“The North wind doth blow, And we shall have snow; And what will poor Robin do then, poor thing?” While you’re more likely to see a robin hopping about in bushes and low branches than hiding in the barn to keep himself warm, there’s no doubt that robins are more visible in winter than many other small birds: their red breasts are cheering beacons in these dull, gloomy days.

I have a feeling that they’re pictured on Christmas cards far less often than they used to be – happy penguins and jolly snowmen (or snowpersons, perhaps ) seem to have taken over in terms of popularity – but they still make a strong appeal to our subconscious at this time of year. One of the many stories associated with the robin is that it got its red breast when it was burned by hot ash while fanning the fire to keep the baby Jesus warm.

Robins have always had a strong connection with humans, it seems, and the fact that they are one of our more colourful native birds must have something to do with this: it’s so easily identifiable that we’re simply more likely to notice it than many birds of a similar size. Some theories would suggest that its distinctive round shape, especially when it fluffs up its feathers, becoming almost spherical in the process, is also part of its appeal. Apparently we’re genetically programmed to find round things and round animals particularly appealing. This is supposed to be connected with the rounded features of babies and small children, to whom we respond in a warm and protective way; and we extend that feeling to other round creatures.

Robins are much tamer than any other wild bird, and particularly tame in winter when food is at its scarcest. Anyone with a garden will have had the experience of digging away in the garden, suddenly being aware of a pair of beady eyes fixed on them, and looking up to see a robin waiting for the opportunity to flutter down and peck away at the worms that have been brought to the surface. The sight of a robin perched on a spade in the garden is so common it’s almost a visual cliché. I’ve even heard a story of a man who was digging in the garden one spring day and left his jacket hanging on a fence post, and when he went out that evening to fetch the jacket he found that a pair of robins had built a nest in the pocket.

You can supposedly predict the weather by observing robins’ behaviour: a robin singing at the top of a bush or tree presages fine weather; but if it stays on lower branches it’s going to rain. If this is true the entire Irish robin population must have spent most of the year huddled miserably in the inner recesses of any available bush.

A robin brings good luck – “Good luck to you, good luck to me, good luck to every robin I see” – but a robin flying into a house through an open window foretells a death in the family.

One of the most appealing characteristics of the robin is that it sings at night. This is particularly noticeable in winter, perhaps because the nights are longer, perhaps because there is so little other birdsong to distract from the robin’s song. Many people even mistake the robin’s night music for that of a nightingale: perhaps the song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, with which Vodafone insist on bombarding us at the moment, might even have come about from such a case of mistaken identity?

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