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Robin Redbreast

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The Robin is Britain's National bird!
Yes, it really is! But how could we come to choose such a small fluffy little bird? After all, most other countries would choose something big and impressive.
Why not the Golden Eagle......or the Osprey?

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Perhaps we should take a closer look at our British Robin - which is quite different from the North American Robin by the way.
It is just five and a half inches long (13.25cms) - a plump "neckless" little bird. Adults have a rich orange red breast and forehead with olive brown upper parts. Both male and female are the same. Juveniles are speckled and do not gain their red breast until their first autumn moult.

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They are friendly, confident birds and there is hardly a garden in Britain that does not have its resident Robin for their territory is small - about a third of an acre (0.13 hectares). This territory is fiercely defended by the male at nesting time when he will react to any small patch of red. In fact is it said that "a red rag to a robin" would be a much better expression than "a red rag to a bull!"

Fights between males can be extremely vicious and may even be to the death. I certainly have thrown a jug of water over a pair of warring Robins in our garden to prevent death occurring right outside my kitchen window! I really didn't want to have to dispose of a little corpse!

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(Robin's Song)
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And that is the same little fellow who will happily sit on the handle of the garden spade waiting for a worm when I am gardening! Only in hard winters will the territorial rules be relaxed and two Robins be seen on a bird table together.

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Robins may live until they are ten years old but only a quarter of them live beyond their first birthday. They sing a lovely warbling song all year - even at night while sitting on a streetlight. The only time they are quiet is when they are moulting after the nesting season. They hide in bushes then too!

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It is the female who pursues the male and they together may choose strange a nest site - inside an old kettle, tin can, boot or even a farm tractor. Then the baby birds will be taken for a daily ride round the farm while the parents keep up the food supply and the farmer gets on with his work.

The nest is made mostly of leaves and moss and is lined with hair and domed. There are usually 5 - 7 eggs which are white with red spots. (This year our Robin family was in the bush nearest to our front door - and we studiously ignored the bush every time we passed so as not to reveal their hiding place to others.)

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So that is the Robin. It is seen on so many Christmas cards. That is thought to date from the 1860s when sending greetings cards became fashionable and the postmen who delivered them wore red tunics and were called "Robins".

Strangely it is only in Britain that the Robin is a friendly garden bird. In Europe it is shy and considered to be a woodland bird. It is also paler in colour.

But everywhere it is called "Redbreast" - in Germany, "Rotkehichen; in Holland - "Roodbroost";
and in France, "Rougegorge".

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There is a legend about how the Robin got its red breast. It is said that a Robin tried to pull the thorns from Christ's crown as He hung on the cross and drops of blood fell in its pale brown chest. If only the story was true - especially as there have been reports of Robins being seen again recently in Jerusalem!

Sadly there was also once a tradition that boys would go out on St. Stephen's Day (26th December) specifically to shoot a Robin with a bow and arrow for no good reason that I can discover. This may be the basis for the sad - but long(!) - nursery rhyme
"Who Killed Cock Robin?"

Nowadays it is domestic cats and traffic that are the Robin's worst enemies.

So there you have it - a little bird that is found in every part of Britain which is bold, confident and friendly but which will fearlessly defend its home……

Perhaps it isn't such a strange choice for our National bird after all! And I have never seen a Golden Eagle visiting our garden......

© copyright Elizabeth Tolson August 2000


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