Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the next in this series of informative articles.

Image: Jim Stevenson

Robins in Fact and Fiction

I suspect that most people in the UK know what an adult Robin looks like, but from my experience most do not understand that young Robins do not have red breasts.  The situation is not helped as Christmas cards will often depict a family of Robins with all the young looking just like Mum and Dad.  This is untrue!

As a member of the local bird club in Leeds, I was sometimes asked to visit some urban area of the city to listen to Nightingales – they always turned out to be Robins singing under a streetlight.

I have also had similar reports out of season of Nightingales singing in March in the middle of St Neots – these reports were not followed up!

It is also believed that the birds singing in Berkeley Square were Robins and not the famous Nightingale.

So, what do we actually know about Robins?

Well, quite a lot, mainly due to the fact that Dr. David Lack published “The Life of a Robin” back in 1943 and this groundbreaking book remains the standard reference book even today.

The Robin is our 2nd commonest British Bird whose population have gone from about 5 million pairs in 1976 to nearly 7.35 million in 2019; and during most times of the year it is the most recorded song bird around our Nature Reserve, the only exception being during July and August when Robins are moulting and so need to keep a low profile.

The Robin’s year can be interrupted by the Autumnal arrival of thousands of continental Robins from mainland Europe, at which point our friendly bright eyed Robin can quickly turn into an aggressive protector of its own range – maybe in your garden?

Both sexes of Robins depend upon this home range for food to keep them alive over the cold winter months. I remember the late James Fisher, well known ornithologist telling me that after the bitter 1962/63 winter, half of the British breeding population had perished.

Juvenile Robin, by hedera.baltica, CC BY-SA 2.0

Looking towards spring, the Robin is noted for nesting in unusual places, including post-boxes, clothing hung on a washing line, moving farm machinery, old kettles, tin cans and in Birmingham, an unmade bed! Also, open fronted nest boxes and with us this year, the more traditional ivy-covered wall. Robins will lay up to 5 eggs and can have up to 3 broods each year, nest building can begin as early as early March.

British settlers overseas were keen to have the sounds and sights from home and attempts were made to introduce our Robins into New Zealand, Australia and on at least 5 occasions into the USA, with Acclimatization Societies being created to manage introductions.  Needless to say, all these efforts ended in failure.  The larger American Robin, a familiar garden bird in the USA and Canada is actually a Thrush.

Folk law abounds around Robins. I wonder in this modern age; just how many children know who killed Cock Robin?

Early Christians believed that Robins got their red breast from Christ’s blood when the Robin tried to remove the crown of thorns-not true as Robins do not occur in the Middle East! Robins were not allowed to be harmed in Norse culture. Any Viking killing a Robin would likely to have his house struck by lightning and his cows and milk turned to blood.

Powdered remains of roasted Robins were used as a treatment for bladder stones – I have not tried this myself! In the kitchen many small birds were used in cooking, the Robin’s flesh was considered very good eating.

Both Robins and Wrens were hunted in village festival up to the start of the 20th Century, particularly in the Isle of Man and more remote areas, and the illegal hunting of Robins continues today in parts of Italy where thousands of small birds are trapped and pickled for culinary use.

In Malta, our Birdlife Partner has campaigned for years against the trapping of Robins, not to eat but sold as “pet” cage birds-children being much involved in the sport of Robin trapping.

Robin by Airwolfhound, CC BY-SA 2.0

Coming back to Britain, our first Victorian postmen were dressed in red uniforms and were called “Robin postmen”.  This was also the time when Christmas cards started to be commercially produced-many depicted Robins, the only problem was that some of these early cards actually used red Robin feathers to adorn the cards! Happy Christmas!

I have left the most unusual story to last. From the time of Aristotle, man had remained puzzled by the fact that different bird populations left Greece and south Europe in the autumn, only to be replaced by a similar species and so the theory of transmutation was born. It was suggested that Redstarts turned into Robins each autumn! Migration was not understood by early naturalists and it is well known that it was considered that Swallows spent the winter at the bottom of muddy ponds and that Barnacle Geese grew out of Barnacle shells. There are many other similar stories.

So, transmutation, it may not have been, but transformation of those spotty juvenile robins into smart adults’ plumage is almost as remarkable-do you agree?

So, when you have been hand taming your garden Robin with mealworms (from the V.C. I hope!), just remember what a special place the Robin has in the hearts and minds of many British people who have named the Robin our National Bird.

Main Reference:
“Robins” Chris Mead 1989
“The Life of the Robin” Dr David Lack 1943

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