The Gardener’s FriendWhen working in the garden, one may have the sensation of being observed. A rustling in the leaves and a glimpse of bright red indicates that the watcher is the friendly robin. He will hop and fly after the gardener, perching on nearby branches, closely watching for tasty morsels.
Robin Redbreast (Erithacus rubecula, European robin) may be a friend to the gardener but he is extremely territorial and very aggressive to other birds. Males and females, alike in appearance, defend their territories rigorously, singing loudly from perches. Although they look indistinguishable, each robin’s red breast pattern is unique.In the breeding season, which starts around March, male and female work as a pair to hold their ground and are among the first birds to sing in the dawn chorus and the last to finish singing at night. Some sing all night and are often mistaken for nightingales. This used to be attributed to street lighting but is now thought to be because their song is more easily heard in the still of night. Apart from when they’re moulting in mid-summer, robins sing all year round, unlike most other birds in UK, which sing only during the breeding season.
These little birds, with their bright black eyes and red breasts, are always a welcome sight in the garden and can become very trusting of people, even feeding from their hands. They have learnt to associate gardeners with an easy source of food, following them as the ground is turned over to reveal wriggling invertebrates. Young robins don’t develop a red breast until after their first moult, but can be recognised by their spindly legs and speckled brown feathers.
There are several legends concerning how the robin acquired its red breast. One says that a small brown bird was present when the fire keeping the baby Jesus warm died down. The bird flapped its wings to fan the flames and a burst of flame scorched its breast. Another story claims that the bird drew a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns and was splashed with blood. A third folk tale says that the little bird took water to the tormented souls in Purgatory and was singed by the flames.
Until 1861, during the reign of Queen Victoria, postmen wore red waistcoats as part of their uniform. They were nicknamed ‘robins’. As they delivered Christmas cards and letters the association with the birds became stronger and they started being pictured on Christmas cards, perhaps representing the postmen. Thus, the centuries old belief that robins were harbingers of good luck and happiness and messengers of joy and peace was reinforced.
There is an old belief that robins bring messages or even visits from departed loved ones – ‘When robins appear, loved ones are near.’ Such beliefs bring comfort and peace. As robins are widespread across the British Isles, the chances of seeing one are very good.