When up aloft
I fly and fly,
I see in pools
The shining sky,
And a happy bird
Am I, am I!
When I descend
toward the brink
I stand and look
And stop and drink
And bathe my wings,
And chink, and prink.
When winter frost
Makes earth as steel,
I search and search
But find no meal,
And most unhappy
Then I feel.
But when it lasts,
And snows still fall,
I get to feel
No grief at all
For I turn to a cold, stiff
January and February are, to my mind, the dreariest months of the year. These are the months of bitter cold and grey skies and though this January may be unseasonably mild, I still feel compelled to hibernate in front of the fireplace with a warm duvet and a cup of cocoa. Having said that, there are things I love about winter. I love walking in the woods amongst the bare gnarled trees, watching the sea when it is wild and frothy and ,of course, I love the excitement of a fresh snow shower. I began thinking about winter birds and wildlife and of course had to write about the bird we most associate with this time of year, the robin redbreast. I remember how delighted I was the first time I saw a European robin, plumper and rounder than our American variety. It was also the first bird that my daughter was able to identify in the garden and she always points them out when she sees them. Though the robin is a year round resident, it is heavily associated with Christmas and winter and that has something to do with the fact that it is a non-migratory bird. It is one of the few birds that sticks around through our cold winter. But, there is also a wealth of Christian mythology associated with the robin.
A common myth regarding the robin relates to how he first came by his red breast. The legend is that the robin took pity on Christ as he was on the cross and began to pluck the thorns out of the crown of thorns. The blood stained the robin and hence his red breast. An Irish proberb states “The robin and the wren are God’s two holy men”. There are many Irish variations on the above myth. In a Sligo folk tale, a robin flew in to see the infant Jesus in the manger. The infant reached out to touch the bird causing it to blush in deference and its breast remained scarlet forever. In Clare the robin was known as spideog Mhuire (Mary’s robin). This tradition has the robin following Mary as she flees to Egypt with the infant. The robin covered with leaves the tracks left by her bloodied bare feet. A further legend has it that the robin helped to fan a fire in the manger to keep the infant warm and was burned by an ember, causing his red breast. In early Christian myth, a robin rescued St. Leonorius in Brittany and St Kentigern brought a dead robin back to life. It is unclear why the robin has been so associated with Christianity but it is undoubtedly our Christmas bird, appearing on numerous Christmas cards and decorations.
The traditional children’s story Babes in the Woods includes a rather stranger legend regarding the robin. In this tale, two infants are left in the woods to die so that their uncle might inherit their legacy. When the children die, it is the robin that buries them.
Their little corpse the robin-redbreast found,
And strew’d with pious bill the leaves around.
This seems to have been a common belief regarding the robin. In Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, a similar quote can be found. Spoken over the corpse of Imogen:
Thou shalt not lack
The flowers that’s like thy face, pale primrose; nor
The azured harebell… The ruddock would
With charitable bill bring thee all these.
And in William Collins’ Dirge to Cymbeline:
The redbreast oft at evening hours
Shall kindly lend his little aid,
with heavy moss and gathered flowers,
To deck the ground where thou art laid.
It is a beautifully romantic image, the robin laying wildflowers and moss over the unburied with his “pious bill”.
It is considered very unlucky to cause harm to a robin. An English folk rhyme states: “The blood on the breast of a robin that’s caught, brings death to the snarer by whom its caught”. The robin is considered a friend to man and should be respected as such. However, robins can also appear as bad omens in some old wives tales. It was sometimes believed that a robin flying into the home through an open window was a harbinger of death. I’m glad I wasn’t aware of that a few years back when we had a robin who regularly used to fly in through our front window. There was however a more logical explanation for this behaviour. That summer, we had a small infestation of flying ants. With a new baby in the house we were unwilling to use poisons or sprays and tried to find natural ways to get rid of them. They left of their own accord eventually, but in the meantime, our robin friend had found a reliable food source.
To conclude, here are some things I love about robins:
The incredible shade of blue on a robin’s egg
The musical sound of the robin singing
And the way they puff themselves out in winter
The north wind doth blow,
And we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then,
He’ll sit in a barn,
And keep himself warm,
And hide his head under his wing Poor thing!