The Robin - The Meaning of Birds episode 6

the meaning of birds a bosco podcast


birds are the wild creatures we see

every day in Gardens fields and cities

pigeons starlings rooks and sparrows are

so familiar we often take them for

granted but what do we know about these

everyday birds and how important are

they and what is their value for us

welcome to the meaning of Birds podcast

a weekly series in which we shall take a

look at the lives and meaning of some

common British Birds season one has six

episodes each examine two different


I am Paul Stevens wood your host for the

series season 1 episode 6 the Robin the

Robin is Britain's favourite bird in

national surveys in the 1960s and again

in 2015 his confidence small bird came

out on top nearly a quarter of a million

people voted in 2015 and the Robin

received roughly three times more votes

than the runner-up the barn owl BBC

spring watch presenter David Lindo who

organized the survey wants the Robin to

be officially recognised by the

government as Britain's national bird

it's very confident and easily

recognized bird but why is it so popular

to look at it the Robin is very

appealing this redbreast is a splash of

color noticeable in the harsh depths of

winter it's dark black eyes

proportionally larger than our own seem

filled with curiosity and it's round

belly makes it look like a ball when it

fluffs out its feathers it's also a bird

full of life with quick purposeful

movements and it's a great singer as dr.

Fletcher observed in 1889 the Robins

confiding trust in man and his readiness

to accept his hospitality

his habit of accompanying the residents

of the dwelling he frequents in their

walks hopping from bow to bow in the

hedgerow and cheering them with his song

all combined to make the Robin and a

special favorite it's also the name of

some of our favorite characters the

outlaw Robin Hood the sprite Robin

Goodfellow also known as puck and the

child Christopher Robin it's not really

known where the name Robin comes from in

every other European language is known

as redbreast though the Swedes call in

Tommy Lyndon and the Norwegians call him

Peter Ross Matt in English Robin is a

diminutive of the old French name Robert

and has been used since the 1540s when

the name redbreast also began to be

widely used the two names may well have

been put together to have an

alliterative effect robin redbreast and

the name Robin has stuck the Robin was

once looked upon as a household fairy

bringing good luck and this affection

may also be reflected in the name since

late medieval times Robin has replaced

the old English name of Ruddick that

dates back a thousand years meaning

rusty orange

it wasn't until 1952 though that

ornithologists formally accepted the

nickname Robin Robins are sworn members

of the thrush family and go by the Latin

name of Aretha raucous Bakula British

Robins are a little different to the

European continental form they have more

warmer brown underparts and a more

confident nature Robin's have an

extensive range in the British Isles

from John O'Groats to Land's End there

are over 6 million breeding pairs so

it's one of our more common birds adults

are about 40 centimetres long and weigh

about 14 grams ever Catholic diet of

worms seeds fruit

insects and other invertebrates in a

mild winter

Robin start courtship in January but the

breeding season normally begins in March

the birds pair only for the duration of

the season nests are on or near the

ground in hollows nooks and crannies

they are famous for nesting in unusual

places old pots and kettles the pockets

of a gardeners coat a pigeon holding a

desk the engineer of a World War 2 plane

and the body of a dead cat the contest

is made by the female alone of dead

leaves and moss with a lining of hair

the male's supply the food during the

nest building and egg-laying there are

between 4 and 6 eggs one laid every day

mostly early in the morning there's a

limited migration with a handful heading

south to winter on the continent they

join other robins passing through on

their way from Scandinavia it's recently

been shown that many migrating robins

are faithful to both their summer and

winter territories migrating regularly

as the Robin is a feeble flier this is a

considerable feat the majority though

don't go far and keep to their local


that the Robin has been a favorite in

Britain for centuries is seen in the

frequent references to it in English

poetry from poets as different as

Geoffrey Chaucer Shakespeare and John

Beckman Wordsworth in typical romantic

fashion wax lyrical about it art thou

the bird who man loves best the pious

bird with a scarlet breast a little

English Robin the bird that comes about

our doors when autumn winds a sobbing

art thou the Peter of Norway Bors there

Thomas in Finland and Russia far inland

the bird whom by some name or other all

men who know the core their brother the

Robin and the Wren had deep associations

with the folklore of the Saxon and

Celtic cultures of Britain the Robin is

the holy king the king of the waxing

year he rules from the summer solstice

to the winter solstice and kills off the

Wren the oak King the king of the waning

year at the winter solstice the Wren

comes into his own and kills the Robin

and so the cycle of life repeats itself

with each season in other pagan myths

the Robin is frequently the bringer of

fire to man scorching expressed in the

process in Wales this legend has earned

the robbed in the name of breast burnt

in Welsh the earliest evidence of the

Robin in British Christianity comes from

the 6th century reference to the

Scottish sand surf of kollross who fed a

Robin that perched on his shoulder while

he prayed it was later killed by some of

his followers but a friend sent Mungo

the founder of Glasgow Cathedral brought

it back to life eight centuries later

the birds tameness was so well

established the Chaucer refers to it as

the tame Roddick in his poem the

Parliament of fowls early Christian

writers proposed that the Robin was

present at the crucifixion in some

versions the Robin tried to alleviate

Jesus is suffering by perching on his

shoulder and

singing into his ear in others it got

its redbreast by tucking at the thorns

in Jesus's crown or trying to staunch

the blood from the spear wound in his

side another legend says that the

robbing scorched his breast in the fires

of purgatory as it took drops of water

in his beak for the parched lips of the


there are several old rhymes that also

suggest divine favor the robin redbreast

and the wren are God Almighty's and

hen and another the Lancashire

incantation the Robin and the wren are

God's and hen thus pink and the

sparrow are the devil's bow and arrow

thus pink being a traffic there's a long

tradition of Robins in church buildings

during charles the second's reign at the

end of the 17th century a Robin

regularly entered Canterbury Cathedral

and it was claimed to shame the Puritans

with its regular church attendance while

another lived in Bristol Cathedral for

15 years at the start of the 19th

century although this story is suspect

as the proven longevity of Robins is

only 8 years and five months a more

reliable story it was broadcast on the

BBC and reported in The Times in 1948 a

pair of Robins nested on the lectern at

ring fuel church in Suffolk the vicar

and congregation chose not to disturb

them and were rewarded by the birds

flying in during hymns and perching on

the piano while it was being played the

Puritans in the 17th century had their

own story about Robins in the propaganda

war between versions of the faith when

dr. John Bostwick was sentenced to

imprisonment on the silly aisles for

outspoken criticism of the church in


it was reported that many thousands of

Robins none of which were ever seen in

those aisles before welcomed him with

their melody and within a day or two

after took flight from thence to no man

knows whither it was taken as a sign

that bast WA could be delivered from


which duly happened though it was some

years later there is a good explanation

for the Robin's visitation we know that

sometimes thousands of European migrants

would descend on a place especially in


one such migration happened then while

Robins have divine connections they also

have a strong traditional association

with death and dying this may come from

the old druidic tradition of the Robin

and Wren killing each other in the

constantly revolving seasons but it

could also be because grave diggers

aroused the Robins interests when they

turn up worms and they were often seen

perched on their spades there's an old

tradition that differ Robin enter the

house at any time of the year except

November then there will be a death in

the family it's not clear why November

was an exceptional month though there

was a caveat that death would come even

then if a Robin tapped at the window in

some places of Robin calling weep weep

or tapping at the window of someone who

was sick was a harbinger of death this

corresponding belief that a member of a

church congregation would die if Robin

flew into the church and sang there is

of course contradicted by the Robins of

Canterbury Bristol and ring field there

is also the legend that after the

crucifixion as Jesus lay uncrowded upon

the ground a Robin came and tried to

cover the body with leaves this

tradition is extended to the Wren - that

if the birds find an unburied body they

will work together to cover it with

leaves this act of kindness is mentioned

in the old English ballad of the babes

in the wood and when they were dead the

Robin so read brought strawberry leaves

and over them spread as a folk legend

that if a Robin dies in your hands the

hand will always shake uncontrollably

see a Federer wrote in 1868 and his

notes and queries how badly right I said

one day to a boy in our parish school

your hand shakes so that you can't hold

the pen steady have you been running

hard or anything of that sort

no replied the lad it always shakes I

once had a Robin died in my hand and

they say that if a Robin dies in your

hand it will always shake

because the robbing is held in such high

regard in British mythology there's a

strong taboo against harming them even

when egg collecting was a popular hobby

it was rare for anyone to take Robin's

eggs in Somerset it was believed egg

robbers fingers would develop twisted

and bent william blake's robin redbreast

in a cage puts all heaven in a rage and

the colloquial saying killer Robin or a

wren never prosper boy or man testify to

the deep belief that any harm caused to

the Robin brought bad luck consequently

in Somerset a man's cattle would give

bloody milk if he killed a Robin

however Bryn's were not always averse to

eating Robins there's a 16th century

account that writes with fine flavor but

these references are very rare the more

usual British attitude to the bird was

shown during the severe winter of 1947

in Norfolk country folk were forced to

capture small birds for the pot any

Robins accidentally killed were buried

with great sorrow in Europe though they

have a different view to leading French

naturalist s-- Kampf taboo form and

George Cuvier described how to capture

it noting that their flesh acquires an

excellent fat which renders it a very

delicate meat the german ornithologist

johan nauman also describes how his

countrymen - killed them in large

numbers but they also took advantage of

the robins tameness to trap them in

their houses releasing them in the

spring during the winter the Robins

would rid the houses of insect pests

even now large numbers of small birds

including Robins are trapped for food in

Mediterranean countries

perhaps the most famous rhyme about

Robins it's the children's verse who

killed Robin who killed Robin

I said the sparrow with my bow and arrow

I killed Robin who saw him die

I says the fly with my dad lie I saw him

die it dates to the 1740s but was

adapted over time with the rhyme most

familiar to us coming from around 1770

it's probably a much older tale in the

19th century it was a favorite nursery

rhyme used in early reading lessons as

he followed a regular and familiar

pattern some claim that the story is an

allegory of real events but if he ever

was the connection has been long lost

the Robins strongest association is with

Christmas images of Robins have been

used by urban artists at Yuletide since

the 18th century but it seems to have

really developed with the custom of

sending Christmas cards

John Horsley designed a card for sending

to friends and family at Christmas in

1843 a court on by the 1860s they were

very common early cards did not use

religious pictures but emphasized the

family joys of Christmas like eating and

dancing winter scenes with Holly and

snow were featured and soon the Robin

appeared the Robins reputation for

friendliness had come to represent the

sentiments of Christmas it's now a

common feature it's been suggested that

the Association comes from the bright

red uniform of the Victorian postman

which gave rise to the nickname of

Robins for them the association with

Christmas could also come from their

obvious presence at that time of year

Robins only stopped singing during their

summer molt a few other birds except for

the wren are so vocal in winter they

will even continue to sing during the

hours of darkness

they're often mistaken for nightingales

set in a landscape of cold

a it prompted Emily brontë to describe

their song as wildly tender the real

nature of the song is anything but

tender one Robin will begin its song as

an aggressive vocal display against the

neighbour which then triggers others to

join in the bird has been known since

ancient times to be an Avis solitary er

a lone bird it's an intensely

territorial animal so to attract a mate

it will sing loudly and aggressively

display its red chest boundary disputes

start with males singing to each other

trying to get a higher perch to show off

their breasts more effectively this

usually ends the challenge with one

Robin backing down but sometimes the

disputes end in real violence causing

actual bloodshed it's estimated that

about 10% of Robins died in these bloody

contests it's not surprising that a

writer for Country Life magazine has

called the Robin essentially a little

brown job with fabulous PR so twice in

Britain the Robin is a divine bird

touched with the blood of Christ and

full of mercy bringing fire to us and

comforting the Damned in purgatory it's

the symbol of joy and goodwill at

Christmas yet it's also the harbinger of

death and will punish those that harm it

by deforming their fingers for people

who carefully watch it in the wild it's

violence is shocking the Robin then our

most popular and loved national bird

would seem to have a deep and complex

relationship with the people in Britain

it is indeed an intriguing bird

to end this podcast here's part of a

modern poem called robbing in flight by

Paul Adrian let's imagine for a second

that the robbing is not to contained

entity moving at speed through space but

that it's a living change unmaking and

remaking itself over and over by sheer

unconscious will and that if we were to

slow down the film enough we would see a

flying ball of chaos

flicking particles like a fellow

counters air turning to beak in front

just as tail transforms to air behind a

living being flinging its changes at a

still universe you have been listening

to a Bosco podcast

thanks to Lobo loco for the music and

see no canto for the recordings of bird

songs both are reproduced under a

Creative Commons license you can get in

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podcasts at this is the last

episode in series 1 thank you for