A robin’s song is a familiar sound to us in winter- when many other birds sing less. It is the European robin’s plucky, territorial nature which drives it to sing year round. Although the song is a beautiful, joyous sound to us it can be of quite a standoffish nature to other birds. You may hear robins singing even at night, with street lamps seeming to be a favourite spot from which to sing on cold winter nights. It is during the spring that the robin’s blood runs hottest, with males becoming especially aggressive during the breeding season. Mated pairs establish and hold a territory together during the summer months but during the winter each robin holds its own domain, so both males and females sing throughout the season.
The beautiful red breast, by which we can identify the robin instantly, is absent in juveniles of the species. They sport a speckled brown breast until they reach maturity, and for good reason! The bright breast plays a role in territorial defence and triggers a violent response; robins have even been observed attacking stuffed robins. Disputes between male robins during the breeding season usually consist of a singing contest and trying to find a higher perch to show off their breast more prominently but they can occasionally become quite violent and some robins have been known to kill other robins. If he were a magpie or any other member of the corvid family, many would be quick to demonise him but there’s something in the robin’s gestures which charms us. I say ‘him’ but, in reality, both the male and female of the species have the characteristic red breast we associate with the robin, making it hard to distinguish between the sexes.
‘Oh! to think that he should actually let her come as near to him as that! He knew nothing in the world would make her put out her hand toward him or startle him in the least tiniest way. He knew it because he was a real person—only nicer than any other person in the world. She was so happy that she scarcely dared to breathe.’ – Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden. Chapter 7: The Key to The Garden
The robin’s aggressive tendencies seem to be at odds with the folklore surrounding them in Britain, where the species is dubbed a ‘gardener’s friend’ and it is said that it was believed to be unlucky to kill one. The robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird in a poll created by Springwatch presenter David Lindo in 2015. The robins of folklore often obtain their red breast through acts of compassion, courage and selflessness; one tale claims that the robin got its red breast when it sat on Christ’s shoulder singing a lament at the crucifixion. According to this tale, the robin’s breast was dyed red from Christ’s blood dripping from the crown of thorns onto the bird’s breast, which remains there as a reminder of the kindness and piety it showed toward Christ. Other versions of the tale have the robin trying to remove the crown of thorns from Christ’s head and being stained with his blood as a result of his efforts.
‘She stopped with a little laugh of pleasure and there, lo and behold, was the robin swaying on a long branch of ivy. He had followed her and he greeted her with a chirp. As Mary had skipped toward him she felt something heavy in her pocket strike against her at each jump, and when she saw the robin she laughed again.’ – Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden. Chapter 8: The Robin Who Showed The Way
Another tale holds that the robin’s breast was scorched when carrying water to souls in purgatory and from then on the bird sported a red breast. The English tale of The Babes in the Wood, first recorded in a ballad in 1595, also has a compassionate robin or robins in some of its many iterations. In The Babes in the Wood the robin, a pious bird moved to pity, covers the bodies of the children with leaves. Perhaps the reason the robin so frequently takes on the role of a helper in our folktales is because it is not too far from how many perceive him in their gardens. His cocked head, coupled with his tiny form and willingness to approach us seem endearing and have us attributing near-human intelligence to him, as he waits to see if we will unearth a tasty morsel for him. Robins will also nest in odd places from time to time and seem relatively undeterred by nearby human activity, which provides us with amusement and also the opportunity to glimpse their young on occasion in an urban environment which can quite divorced from nature for many. Having such close encounters with wildlife feels like a privilege and can really boost our mood.
Our habit of referring to the robin’s breast as ‘red’ in English is a historical throwback; there was no word for ‘orange’ in Old English and even after the word ‘orange’ was later introduced into the English language from French, it was still some time before it was used to describe a colour and not the fruit. According to linguistics experts and historians, this did not occur until around the 16th century. Prior to the use of the word ‘orange’ in English to describe a colour, things that we would usually refer to as being orange in colour today were described as red, sometimes with the addition of yellow as another descriptor depending on the shade, such as the term geoluread (yellow-red) in Old English.
‘The robin flew from his swinging spray of ivy on to the top of the wall and he opened his beak and sang a loud, lovely trill, merely to show off. Nothing in the world is quite as adorably lovely as a robin when he shows off—and they are nearly always doing it.’- Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden. Chapter 8: The Robin Who Showed The Way
In addition to folktales, robins have been recurring endearing figures in children’s stories and nursery rhymes. The Marriage of Robin Redbreast and The Wren was a story that, according to his sister Isabella, Robert Burns used to tell to amuse children. The story has the robin traveling to sing a song to a king on Yuletide morning. On his way, various shady characters who would like to harm the little robin, ranging from a cat and birds of prey to a fox and eventually a little boy, try to convince the robin to step closer to them. Each one tries to entice him to come within striking distance under the pretence of showing him something interesting. The robin, however, sees through their lies and recalls their previous victims, bravely declaring that he will not be one of them. After he sings his song to the king and queen, they reward him with a wren for a bride.
The association of a robin with the wren predates the 18th century. According to W.B. Lockwood, writing in the journal Folklore in 1989, one of the first written associations of a robin with a wren can be found in an anonymous poem dating back to the 1400s. In this poem the robin and wren are juxtaposed against a magpie and have great love for one another. They are not, however, explicitly said to be married- that was apparently the work of later authors. Lockwood dates the first explicit literary mention of the robin and wren as husband and wife to 1787. Clearly the theme has endured, perhaps in no small part due to development and popularity of children’s toy books in the 19th century, with the likes of Edmund Evans, Walter Crane, Kate Greenway and Randolph Caldecott leading the way in the popularisation of toy books.
Toy books became known for their beautiful and brightly coloured illustrations, which might be more easily absorbed by a young reader than the (usually) minimal text. In some cases the text contained within may have proved too advanced for a young child to read but, in the case of nursery rhymes, could be committed to memory from hearing them recited aloud by an adult- much in the same way that ballads might be picked up by people who could not read the broadsheet they were printed on during the early modern period. The illustrations in toy books, which conveyed the most important aspects of the text, were often the main selling point of such books and their popularity helped to ultimately transform the way that we ‘consume’ books in our childhood; with there being a wealth of books now aimed at children and children’s books being known for their illustrations just as much as the text contained within. In the case of books intended for very young children, illustrations often surpass the text in terms of importance and immediate enjoyment for the child.
Some robins we become familiar with during childhood are to be pitied, such as the robin who has a miserable winter in the nursery rhyme The North Wind or The North Wind and the Robin:
The north wind doth blow,
And we shall have snow,
And what will the robin do then, poor thing?
He’ll sit in a barn,
And keep himself warm,
And hide his head under his wing, poor thing!
The hand coloured proof pictured above was drawn by Walter Crane for The Baby’s Bouquet; a Fresh Bunch of Old Rhymes and Tunes. The design was created to frame The North Wind and The Robin. As you can see, this is not the finished version- so why not print it out and have the kids draw their own robins in the centre as a fun festive activity? You’ll be able to access a larger image on our collections search if you follow the link in the image credit above.
Sometimes the robin is not so lucky as to find shelter in a warm barn, as in the case of Cock Robin in the nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin?– a sad tale which was first put into writing in the 18th century but may go back later. There are various theories as to who or what the rhyme was inspired by and who or what it refers to. So who did kill Cock Robin? The first part of the rhyme gives it all away; it was the sparrow with his bow and arrow! In the illustration by Walter Crane below, which accompanied Cock Robin’s Death and Burial, a fish rather than a duck is ready to catch poor Cock Robin’s blood. Subsequent illustrations by Walter Crane in our collection for Cock Robin’s Death and Burial show what appears to be a carrion crow rather than a rook in the role of the parson who conducts the funeral service but, as you can see, the villain of the tale has remained the same. And as if this story wasn’t morbid enough, the original rhyme has a duck who ‘caught’ Cock Robin’s blood. ‘It was just my luck’, says the duck in the rhyme but Walter Crane has replaced the duck here with a fish which seems disturbingly well prepared to catch either Cock Robin’s blood or his still-warm body- an accomplice to the crime or just a ruthless opportunist who always happens to have a plate handy?
Sinister fish aside, the robin can also play the role of a guide or messenger in literature and folk beliefs; in The Secret Garden it is the friendly and inquisitive robin who shows Mary where to find the key to the garden and, later, the door. The robin’s role as messenger is especially prominent on Christmas cards in Britain. This is cited as having its origins in the 19th century, when Christmas cards became very popular. According to Dr David Lack, robins were featured on Christmas stationary and cards in Britain from around 1860 onwards and were sometimes referred to on such stationary and cards as the ‘postman’.
Today robins perched on post boxes and/ or bearing letters can still be found on some Christmas cards, on others the robin is seen interacting with people or is the main focus of the images on Christmas cards under a message of season’s greetings. But why associate a robin with the role of a postman? Well it just so happens that in 1860 the uniform of a postman in Britain included a red tunic, and it appears that this may have prompted some to refer to them as ‘robins’. Although the design of their uniform was eventually changed, this connection between the bird and postmen and associated postal paraphernalia, particularly post boxes, has endured to this day and so has our tendency to view the robin in the role of a messenger in Britain. Today our posties sport red shirts as part of their uniform, perhaps we should take to calling them robins again!
Nowadays the robins and other birds you may spot on Christmas cards are depicted as being alive, unless they’re turkeys, but in the 19th century, particularly the 1880s, dead robins and other small birds such as wrens on Christmas cards became a recurring theme. The deceased birds were often depicted in much the same way as Cock Robin is after his death, minus the arrow; eyes closed, on their back with their legs in the air, feet sometimes curled as if to grip a perch- looking as if they had just dropped off a branch or fell from the sky. And yes; these cards did wish people well during the festive season and new year! That’s right; these weren’t a strange, passive-aggressive festive threat. At least we don’t think they were! We can’t speak to everyone’s intentions of course but one of the reasons cited by John Grossman and others for such merrily morbid imagery was that the robins and other birds depicted in this manner were intended to remind people of those less fortunate. In Britain, ‘robin dinners’ were organised by philanthropists to provide free Christmas dinners for poor children.
Thankfully, not every bird knocked off their perch on a 19th century Christmas card was necessarily a dead one. The National Library of Ireland produced a rather excellent Advent calendar of 19th and early 20th century Christmas imagery on their Flickr account in 2011, which you can find here. Day 2 of their Flickr Advent calendar featured a Christmas card from 1876 with two robins on it, one of whom has keeled over because the naughty birds have been imbibing Christmas spirits.
Now back to the robin as a messenger; one superstition I’ve often had repeated to me, perhaps not very old at all in its origins, holds that when one sees a robin it is the spirit of a departed loved one come to say hello.
What do you make of our plucky feathered friends?
National Library of Ireland Flickr Advent Calendar 2011
Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, eBook:
Yowann Byghan, Sacred and Mythological Animals: A Worldwide Taxonomy (New York, 2020).
Gavin Evans, The Story of Colour, (London, 2017).
Kate Kellaway, ‘Babes in the Wood’, The Guardian, 11 April 2011
John Grossman, Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark and Forgotten Christmas (New York, 2008).
Dr. David Lack, ‘Robins For Christmas’, The New Scientist Vol. 8., Number 214, 22 December 1960, pp. 1639-1641.
W.B. Lockwood, ‘The Marriage of the Robin and the Wren’, Folklore Vol 100, Issue II (1989), pp. 237-239.
Stephen Moss, The Robin: A Biography (London, 2017).
Gordon N. Ray, The Illustrator and the Book in England from 1790-1914 (New York, 1991).
Helen F. Wilson, Robin (Animal Series), (London, 2022).
British Trust for Ornithology:
BBC News: Robin tops poll to find UK’s ‘national bird’, 11 June 2015