Thursday, July 29, 2021
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Notes from the sticks: The Christmas bird

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I AM awed by how organised some people are. We received our first Christmas cards at the end of November, whereas I am usually scribbling mine to catch the last post on December 23. Have you noticed that if someone unexpected sends a card, it always arrives on Christmas Eve, so you haven’t got time to send one in return?

Anyway they are arriving in earnest now (no, I haven’t started mine), and as usual quite a number are adorned with robins. I thought I would look up why robins are associated with Christmas and found there are two main theories.

The first is that when Christmas cards were invented in the Victorian era, postmen wore bright red uniforms and were nicknamed ‘robins’ or ‘redbreast’. Card illustrators caught on to this and drew pictures of postmen and then robins delivering the post.

Before that, however, robins were already linked with the traditional Christmas story. The legend is that after Mary gave birth to Jesus in the stable, the fire that she and Joseph had lit to keep warm was going out. Suddenly, a small brown bird appeared and flapped its wings in front of the dying fire, causing it to roar back to life. In the process a glowing ember flew out of the fire and scorched its breast bright red.

The European robin (Erithacus rubecula) is found all over the continent. In Britain the native population are joined in the winter by migrants from Scandinavia and Russia. Although they are highly territorial in the summer, and will even fight to the death, if times are hard in the winter they seem to put aside their differences in the common interest and hunt for food together.

Every gardener knows that he or she is likely to be joined by a robin looking for tasty treats, often getting right to your feet and perching on the handle of your spade. The mystery to me is why only robins have made this breakthrough – other birds can see them pecking about and finding food but it never seems to occur to them to copy the profitable behaviour.

Robins can be trained to come to the hand to feed on mealworms or sunflower hearts. Here is a video explaining how to do it.

Here is another very tame little fellow. (I am always amazed at how their spindly legs can carry all the necessary muscles and so on.) This one was at Whiston on Merseyside, not all that far from us.

I have not seen this said anywhere but I think you would be sensible to limit the number of times a day you feed them so that they do not become dependent on you.

They are renowned for choosing odd places to nest, such as in cars or machinery. Sheds are popular. If you want to offer a nestbox, it needs to be the type with an open front, not a small hole. Here is an example (the firm is nothing to do with me). 

Here is a time-lapse film of a robin building a nest in ten hours, turning a jumble of twigs into a neat home.

They will have two or three clutches of eggs. The fledglings are spotted brown. Here is a parent feeding the hungry young ones.

Robins are enthusiastic singers. It seems to me that their song varies from bright and optimistic in the spring to mournful in the autumn, but that is probably my imagination.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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