The first year I printed my own Christmas cards, I drew a robin. I sold the cards at craft fairs for 60p. That was six years ago. The same little robin redbreast cards are still one of my most popular cards today. Every year I think maybe this is the year he should retire – I’ve drawn many robins since then – but each year he sells well and stays in the collection. That’s got to me to thinking just what it is about robins that we love so much in this country, and why they are so strongly associated with winter celebrations.
The red-chested songbird that is the robin is officially the UK’s favourite bird. It received a whopping 34% of the vote in 2016. You can easily see why this little bird is held so dear. They are distinctive and easy to recognise with their orangey-red breasts. They sing brightly and boldly throughout the year, populating our gardens with song and movement even on the direst winter days. Robins don’t seem to be phased by human contact, often following gardeners round the gardens and even approaching to be fed by hand. These spirited little birds offer us an easy connection with wildness, a moment of contact, and we adore them for it.
There are 6,700,000 breeding pairs of robins in the UK. The males and females are identical to look at. Despite their sweet reputations, robins are actually fiercely, aggressively territorial. The sole purpose of those famous red chests is defensive. They are a warning and a power statement. Robins have even been known to attack their own reflections or a stray red feather. In the summer, a territory is defended by a breeding pair, and in winter they are held individually. Both the male and female sing loudly to defend their territories. This is one of the reasons we associate the robin so strongly with winter – they are the only bird still out there singing right through the year. There can be up to 250 pairs of robins per square kilometre in densely populated areas, so territory is at an absolute premium.
The robin’s song changes throughout the year. In the springtime, it is bold, bright, confident. The birds are portraying power and attractiveness. In the autumn, the song changes to a more melancholy, subdued tone. The goal is no longer to be liked, it is about territory only. Not only is the robin the bird we hear all year through, it is one of the first voices to pipe up at dawn and the last to quiet down at night. Robins have even been known to sing under streetlights through the night.
The tender relationship between robins and those humans who tend their territories is one which can melt the heart of the gruffest gardener. Robins eat worms and insects, as well as fruit and seeds, and the gardener is good at disturbing and sourcing these foods. Robins seem to have worked out that humans pose very little threat to them, and can even be of help. Their inbuilt curiosity leads them to check up on the gardener’s every move. The iconic image of the robin sitting on the handle of an upright spade, surveying the garden, is one which captures that confidence and nosiness. Really, as much as we might think differently, these little birds are the kings and queens of our gardens, not us.
The association of robins with Christmas is thought to be partly because Victorian posties wore red tunics and were known as robin redbreasts. As the popularity of sending Christmas cards rose, the robin became inextricably associated with Christmas.
Robins have been present in Christian and folk iconography for centuries. Many people like to associate the robin with the spirit of a deceased loved one. There are a few things we can do to support our little red-feathered friends through the winter whether we think of them as a loved one visiting or as a cocky gardening companion. Severe winter weather can have quite an impact on mortality. A bird can use up to 10% of its body weight during one cold night. Putting food out for robins that is rich in the proteins and fats that they need can really help. Their absolute favourite is mealworms, but they are partial to some kitchen scraps like fat, cheese, cake and biscuit crumbs, and dried fruit.