Right now, robins are gearing up for the mating season. Just outside my window, about fifteen yards apart, two are battling it out in the initial song stage of the eternal fight for a mate. Robins sing all year round, but now they’re really going for it.
Everyone in Britain loves robins. It’s been our national bird since 1960. The picture above was a winner in the 2016 international garden photographer of the year competition. The picture might be something of a cliché. Yet in its perfect composition it says something to us. We connect with robins like few other creatures. Their big, appealing eyes and round bodies command an instinctive reaction. We can’t help but feel warmly towards them.
The robin redbreast and the wren
Are God almighty’s cock and hen.
My late mother in law loved robins. When she died and we were laying her ashes to rest in the municipal graveyard near her home, a robin flew into the tree above and began singing. Her family, atheists and agnostics all, instantly declared that the bird was the spirit of their mum. Jokes about her turning up to see things were done properly couldn’t disguise the fact that at this most emotional of times they had sought comfort in some echo of a pagan belief. They needed to believe for a moment that the natural world somehow acknowledged their particular existence and the passing away of one of their tribe. The robin is a meme.
There are many myths associated with robins, often involving kindness to humans. One is that it singed its breast while trying to give water to sinners. Another is that it tried to pluck the crown of thorns from Christ’s head but succeeded only in tearing its own breast. Its red breast is a badge of honour.
Perhaps its mythical status comes from its close associations with humans. Most gardeners would regard them as a friend, and it’s possible they learned their habit of picking worms and insects from ground recently dug over by pigs in the forest. Robins have a witty knack for improvisation, and can turn almost any covered space into a nest. Chicks have been reared in coat pockets, unmade beds, abandoned kettles, car bodies. One even nested in a hole in the mast of Nelson’s Victory, made by a cannon shot.
The fact that robins are no more generous than any other creature is no deterrent to their status as harbingers of goodwill. When it comes to a dispute over territory a robin will violently attack a rival. In most such disputes display is all, and if a contender dies after a tussle it will be at a later date, as a result of wounds. Nevertheless, robins will aggressively defend their territories, which often adjoin those of other robins within a small garden space. You don’t mess with Mr Robin.
Aggressive display of territoriality it might be, but the robin’s song is still one of the loveliest to be heard.
Or other, two mornings running, stirred me at four:
Too late for night, too early for day.
Something I cannot now recall. But what
Kept me awake – though it had not woken me –
Was a bird,
Invisible; no stained breast, no pin-bright eyes,
Just the voice
Of all the robins I had ever heard
Peter Walton, Birdsong.