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A Mooney Goes Wild Special broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 on Christmas Eve, 24th December, 1999 at 3pm - when Derek met Ireland's Robin experts for an in depth investigation into the life and times of the Christmas bird.
The Robin, not the Turkey, is the real Christmas bird; you find him on cards, cakes and Christmas trees. This little upstart has earned his place in the sun, or maybe in the snow. A resourceful little character, he visits houses when natural foods are hard to find during the short cold days. Robins have learned that people give "hand-outs", or is it presents, particularly at Christmas time. He is also a persistent, though not the finest, songster, being the only Irish bird who sings continually throughout the winter.
But his red breast was also to his advantage in getting himself accepted in his Christmas role. In Victorian times, postmen wore a red uniform and were known as "Robin redbreasts". They were servants of the Crown, whose national colour was red, and there were postal deliveries on Christmas day well into our own century. So the Robin, the postman and the gifts which he brought, became associated.
But is Robin Redbreast having us on? Is he really the friendly and gentle little fellow he seems? Does he deserve his special Christmas place? Dr. Richard Collins, scientific adviser to Mooney Goes Wild, is not so sure. "A more inappropriate symbol of the season of peace and goodwill it would be hard to find" he says.
'The red red Robin who goes bob bob bobbin along' is not in fact a Robin at all. It is a much larger bird, a thrush, the American Robin. The English settlers in America, in their nostalgia for the old country, simply named the local red breasted thrush after their favourite bird from home. The Robin is a much loved bird in Ireland as in Britain. It is steeped in folklore and celebrated in literature.
The bird's name was originally the 'Ruddock' or 'Redbreast'. In children's stories this became 'Robin Redbreast' giving way, in time. to 'Robin'.
The Christmas connection
The Robin has become one of the great symbols of Christmas. It features on Christmas cards, cakes, stuffed robins on trees etc. The tradition was invented by the Victorians. When the first postal service was established in the 1840s, postmen wore a red uniform. They were servants of the Crown, whose national colour was red and they soon became known as 'Robin Redbreasts'. There were postal deliveries on Christmas day well into our own century and so the Robin, the postman and the gifts which he brought, became associated. Robins visit houses in winter when natural foods are short, daylight is limited and birds can't find enough wild food. Robins have learned that people give them 'hand-outs'. Other myths may also be a factor: e.g. the Robin was said to have Christ's blood on its breast because it visited the crucifixion and tried to pull the thorns from Christ's head. So the Robin became a religious bird.
The Irish connection
The pioneering work on Robins was carried out in County Fermanagh by the county surveyor, J.P. Burkitt. Burkitt was possibly the most outstanding, certainly the most original of Irish ornithologists. His importance has not been adequately recognised. (Praeger's Some Irish Naturalists fails to mention him). His claim to fame is that the invented the technique known as colour ringing. In the 1920s, Burkitt attached metal rings to the legs of wild Robins to study them individually in the field. Ironically, Burkitt was colour-blind and so he had to use rings with unique shapes rather than colours. With his study Burkitt unlocked for the first time the secrets of the Robin's lifestyle. The work of David Lack, whose book The Life of the Robin is a natural history classic owes its genesis to Burkitt's work.
Gavin Fennessy is continuing the Irish tradition of Robin study with his work at University College Cork.
Classification and distribution
The Robin is something of a 'loner' among our birds, being related, though not very closely, to the thrushes and chats. He is found throughout Europe including European Russia. He breeds also in northern Morocco, Algeria, the Canary Island and Madeira. Robins visit Asia Minor in winter. The bird is found throughout Ireland, in towns and cities as well as the country. There are probably four million Robins in the country.
The confiding behaviour of the Robin is peculiar to Britain and Ireland. Elsewhere he is shy and skulking.
Robins are ground feeders. They eat mostly insects and earthworms. A great opportunist, the Robin will approach a gardener to cash in on the earth worms and insect larvae turned up by the spade. They can become extremely tame by repeated offers of food. Some will feed from the hand.
In late winter or early spring, males take up territories. The territory is an area, perhaps half a hectare in extent, which the Robin defends against all other Robins. He declares his ownership by singing from perches on the periphery of the territory. The song consists of a cadence followed by a short silence during which the bird listens for 'replies' from neighbours and potential rivals. If a rival intrudes, the territory owner will sing loudly and fly towards the challenger. He will puff out and display his red breast and ritually threaten the rival. If that fails he will resort to fighting. This can result in serious injury or death and is used only as a last resort. The function of song and the red breast, then, is to avoid going to war (rather like our own military displays, banners and propaganda). 'It is great victory that comes without blood' (G. Herbert 1639). The territorial system is very strong in Robin society. They are very anti-social birds. A stuffed specimen placed in a territory will be torn to pieces by the owner. It has been said that the only place you are likely to find more than a pair of Robins together is on a Christmas card.
The song has a second function. It attracts females. 'Full loud he sang come hither love to me' (Chaucer). She is drawn in by his song but at first he drives away from the territory. Gradually, if she persists, she is accepted. The pair bond is strengthened by courtship feeding of the female by the male. 'Win her with gifts if she respect not words' (Shakespeare).
The nest is usually in a hollow in a wall or bank, but it may be on the ground. Robins frequently nest in unusual places. A pair raised a brood in the Rotunda Maternity Hospital some years ago. Last year a pair nested on a bookshelf in Cavan County Hospital.
There are usually two clutches of four to six eggs. Occasionally a third clutch is laid. The female incubates and is fed on the nest by the male. A new nest is built for the second clutch but occasionally the old nest is reused. Building a new nest helps to reduce the numbers of ticks and louse which proliferate at this time. Both parent feed the young. The babies become independent about three weeks after leaving the nest.
At the end to breeding season the pair are exhausted. New feathers have to be grown. Without pristine flight feathers the birds are vulnerable to predators and become shy and skulking. The territorial system and the pair bonds break down. As winter approaches both males and females, now with their new feathers, establish individual territories. These are smaller than the spring territories of the male. The song is continued throughout the winter, but is weaker than in spring. Females, unusually, also sing. In fact, both males and females lapse into a sexless state. As winter draws to a close the cycle begins once more. The same two birds may pair again but usually there is a change of mate.
The best introduction to the species is still David Lack's The Life of the Robin (4th edition 1965, Fontana New Naturalist). For an up to date resume of our knowledge of the Robin: Stanley Cramp. The Handbook of the Birds of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, Volume V. pp 596-616.