Sunday, 21 December 2008

Bird Watch, Christmas & The Robin



Because it is Christmas I have been looking out for the Robin in the garden and even bought some special (overpriced) food to attract him in. I was rewarded this morning when I saw him strutting around the garden in his distinctly pugnacious way and I thought that it would be nice to find out some more about this favourite British bird.

In 1960 the Robin had a landslide victory in a national poll in the conducted by the Times newspaper in which millions of people voted, and as a result it was suggested as Britain's national bird. The Government did not however respond to the concept and Britain remains therefore without an official avian symbol. As a sort of consolation the Robin was used as a symbol of a Bird Protection Society, but only for a few years before because this was discontinued after a short while.

Unlike most other woodland and garden birds, the robin rarely migrates abroad and is probably for this reason that we associate them with Christmas, taking a starring role as they do on thousands of Christmas cards. The Robin has also appeared on a complete set of Christmas postage stamps in 1995 and before that in 1966 in a birds of Britain set.


The robin's red breast is often assumed to play a role in courtship but in fact it is purely used in defence because despite their distinctly cute appearance Robins are territorial and will defend their territory to the death. An old English folk tale seeks to explain the Robin's distinctive red breast and legend has it that when Jesus was dying on the cross, the Robin, then simply brown in colour, flew to his side and sang into his ear in order to comfort him in his pain. The blood from his wounds stained the Robin's breast, and after that all Robins got the mark of Christ's blood upon them.

In the birds of Shakespeare the Robin (or the Ruddock) gets three mentions, in Cymberline, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Henry IV part 1.

Because their home colours are red at least eight English football clubs are nicknamed ‘The Robins’. Only one other bird is the nickname of more than one club and that is the Magpie, so the Robin is rather over represented in this respect. Here is my list, but there are probably some more:

West Bromich Albion are the Throstles (Song Thrush), Norwich City the Canaries, Newcastle United and Notts County are the Magpies and Kidderminster Town are the Harriers. In Yorkshire Leeds United are the Peacocks and Sheffield Wednesday the Owls. Crystal Palace are grandly known as the Eagles, Cardiff City are the Bluebirds and further down the M4 Swansea City are predictably the Swans. Back in England Torquay United are the Gulls and Brighton & Hove are the Seagulls. When it comes to Robins there is Chetenham Town, Swindon Town, Bristol City, Wrexham, Altrincham, Ilkeston Town, Bracknell Town and Selby Town. Interestingly not Manchester United but then as nicknames go the 'Robins' isn't nearly so intimidating as the 'Red Devils!'

None of these nicknames though are as interesting orr as amusing as my favourite. Hartlepool are known as the Monkeyhangers because during the Napoleonic wars the residents of the town allegedly mistook a monkey for a Frenchman and strung it up from the town gallows. According to local folklore a French ship was wrecked off the coast of the town and the only survivor was a monkey, wearing a French uniform. On discovering the monkey, some locals decided to hold an impromptu trial on the beach and since the unfortunate animal was unable to answer their questions (and many locals were unaware of what a Frenchman may look like) they concluded that the monkey was in fact a French spy and had it put to death.

In the list of nicknames there are no Great Tits I notice, although it is almost certain that most clubs, or their players, will be referred to as such at some time during a season. In the world of Rugby League Hull Kingston Rovers are called the Robins and so is the Swindon speedway team.

Other famous Robins are the Boy Wonder in the Batman comics, the Robin Reliant car and of course our most famous hero of Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood! There is a story that in the DC comic ‘Batman’ the name ‘Robin the Boy Wonder’ was inspired by the Errol Flynn movie ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ but other theories about Robin's origin have instead often said the name comes from the bird, which neatly explains the red tunic.

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