Fiery Redcoats and Tiny Troglodytes

Originally published December 2011

Hello everyone! During the course of my perambulations around the fields and woodlands in our corner of the world I have had plenty of time to develop a pet theory of mine. These extended periods of cogitation resulted in the belief that time is passing so quickly now that Ma Nature just cannot keep up; hence our seasons are out of kilter with what we consider to be the natural order of things. This may not appear to be the most scientifically based proposition that I have come up with in the course of my ramblings but as I sit here here in the middle of November, in warm sunshine, with birds singing and butterflies and bees dancing in the back garden it is a tempting hypothesis!

Be that as it may, my calendar is telling me that the Winter Solstice is looming with Christmas hot on its tail; a season when the only birds on peoples’ minds are corpulent geese, plump turkeys and of course our much heralded Robin. A member of one of the numerous Sub-families of the Order Passeriformes (perching or song birds), the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), can put in a strong claim to be Britain’s favourite bird. Indeed it was crowned as the UK’s National Bird after a vote in the Times newspaper in 1960. In addition to featuring on a large percentage of our Christmas cards the chirpy Redbreast is a familiar sight to every gardener as he (or she) hops within arms’ length to search for worms and grubs in newly disturbed soil. Strangely the same familiarity towards people is not apparent outside of the garden. Walk through our little reserve and you will hear the familiar high pitched, almost wistful song before you see the bird (if you are lucky) perched high in the trees or in thick undergrowth. One explanation for this rural aloofness is the Winter migration of Robins from Scandinavia to this country. Seemingly these birds have not developed the British love of the gardening culture and, unlike our native Robin, prefer to stay clear of people.

TQW Dec 11 pic 1

Friendly as they might appear, our National Bird has a reputation for being one of the most fierce guardians of its territory. Verbal disputes often develop into no-holds-barred fights that result with the vanquished bird maimed, or even killed. This staunch defence of its realm continues throughout the year in this country. The Winter Solstice appears to enliven them and their song becomes stronger over our festive period as the search for a mate begins. In areas of artificial light they can be heard warbling through the night and are often mistaken for Nightingales. At this point I can imagine a clamour of voices in protest as you guess what is coming next. Nevertheless, I am afraid scientific accuracy must prevail and I have to report that it was almost certainly a Robin that sung in Berkely Square!

Many tales link the Robin to Christianity; with perhaps the most popular telling how the bird’s breast turned red after it was pricked attempting to pluck thorns from Christ’s head. However, it was only in the last 150 years that the Redbreast has become synonymous with Christmas. The 18th and 19th centuries saw a penchant for anything connected to royalty to be coloured red. Consequently, chaps from all walks of life found themselves sitting targets as they marched through various parts of the Empire in bright scarlet military tunics. TQW Dec 11 robinsThe less hazardous profession, the Postmen for the Royal Mail, also adopted this dress code and were affectionately known as Robins. The newly marketed idea of sending Yuletide cards gave the designers of the day the opportunity to continue the theme and they took anthropomorphism to extreme lengths in their depictions of red-waistcoated, avian ‘gentlemen’ in various guises.

Coincidentally the Robin has, for a long time, been closely associated with another of our song birds whose links with the the Festive Season go back into ancient history. TQW Dec 11 pic 2
The Wren, (Troglodytes sp.), also a member of the Passeriformes, has relatives throughout the Americas and Europe and is deeply entrenched in folklore and mythology across the globe. However, in contrast to the Robin, a bird treated with reverence bordering on adoration, Wrens have fallen from favour. Once considered the King of the Birds and sacred to the Greeks, Romans and our very own Druids, history saw them transformed into a Christian symbol of betrayal and death. The diminutive bird with the startlingly loud voice was thought to have given St Stephen away in his hiding place; thus leading to his martyrdom. This act was commemorated in various ways across the UK and Ireland; to the extent that Wrens were stoned to death on St Stephen’s day. Today the Wrenboys of Ireland and Mummers of England still parade an effigy of a Wren around villages on the 26th December. In fairness to the Christians, Wrens did not fare much better under the Pagans; killing the bird was seen as a way of dispensing with the darkness of the Old Year whereas the Robin was venerated as the bringer of light for the forthcoming Spring.

Given that the two birds were treated so differently for centuries, it is ironic that they were actually considered to be the same species by many people. As all adult Robins are practically identical in appearance, as are adult Wrens, we can forgive those early naturalists for coming up with the erroneous conclusion that one may well be the mate of the other. The fact that both species lead a relatively solitary lifestyle (during daylight hours at least) and are conspicuous during the Winter months gave further credence to this belief. The bold Redbreast and pert Monarch of the Birds have been paired together in literature and verse since the 14th century; often treated as the main participants in a Bard-like tragic love story.

They each took a bumper,
And drank to the pair,
Cock Robin the bridegroom,
And Jenny Wren the fair.

(Traditional)

So there it is, two of our native birds who for one reason or another, have been both elevated and maligned through no fault of their own. Take a Winter walk through Quarry Wood to glory at the sight and sounds of our festive songsters and take cheer in the knowledge that however quickly the seasons appear to change, Ma Nature will get it right in the end!

Happy Christmas One and All!

Paul Johnson

TQW victorian robins

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Image 1: Robin by f.c.franklin, used under used under Creative Commons License 2.0 / Image 3: Fair Isle Wren 110923 Troglodytes troglodytes fridariensis by Dave Curtis, used under CC2.0


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