Robin Redbreast

The Robin first appeared on Christmas cards in the 1860s and was often illustrated carrying an envelope in its bill. It has been suggested that the bright red coat worn by Victorian postmen gave rise to their nickname of Robin. A former post office employee and writer by the name of Trollope once wrote, “come in, Robin postman, and warm theeself awhile”.

Like postmen Robins have a reputation for their friendliness. The earliest evidence of this is from the sixteenth century when St Serf of Culross in Fife apparently fed a robin perched on his head as he prayed. Later the bird was killed by some of his disciples but was brought back to life again by St Serf’s favourite, Kentigem, founder of the Glasgow Cathedral. The robin is still commemorated in Glasgow’s coat of arms.

Not everyone shares our affection for the robin as migrants are still trapped for food in parts of the Mediterranean region. In the past the French also captured them for food and one naturalist wrote, “Their flesh acquires an excellent fat, which renders it a very delicate meat”. In Germany they were killed in large numbers and also trapped in houses in the autumn to purge the interiors of insects. The birds were then released in the spring.

The species has always been considered a bird of good omen and harming them has been considered unnatural hence

Kill a robin or a wren

Never prosper boy or man

During the hard winter of 1947 the country folk of Norfolk were compelled to trap small birds for the pot in order to survive. If a robin was caught the corpse was buried.

A traditional legend held that the robin in the house was a harbinger of death. The Larkins of Loddon, Norfolk, recounted how, on the loss of a father and grandfather, each of five family members had had a robin experience that day. One entered the grand-daughter’s stable, another landed in the deceased man’s garden shed and one entered a grand-son’s house to take food from the dog’s bowl in the kitchen.

There are numerous stories of robins entering religious buildings. The former rector of Hinton Martel near Wimbourne recalls how a robin and sparrow spent the night in the church and were still there for the morning Mass. Apparently the robin watched the proceedings until the Consecration prayer when it perched on the rector’s back. Afterwards it chirruped for some time, as if joining in audibly until the Communion. During Charles IIs reign a robin regularly entered and sang in Canterbury Cathedral and another is reputed to have lived in Bristol Cathedral for 15 years although the only accurate record of longevity involved a bird that was eight years and five months. A pair of robins received national attention when they nested in the lectern in Ringfield church, Suffolk. The doors were left open to allow them access and sermons were delivered from the chancel steps to avoid disturbing the birds. The robin would perch in the porch after the service and follow the vicar to the rectory, or it would fly in during hymns and sit on the piano whilst it was being played. Perhaps we could consider the robin to be the most church-going of our birds.

Alwyn Jackson

(Reference “Birds Britannica” Mark Cocker & Richard Mabey pub Chatto & Windus 2005)

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