What’s In a Name?
The English word “robin” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ruddock, meaning ruddy and seems to have been the original title of the bird in England. It was replaced from the 15th century onward by the more familiar term redbreast, which survived as the official name in the British Ornithological Union list until 1952. Robin was originally a nickname appended to redbreast, like “Jenny Wren” or “Tom Tit.” The Irish word, Spideog, is of unknown origin but may derive from spid meaning “energy” in English.
Many names in other European languages also allude to the bird’s redbreast or throat area, for instance, roodboorst (redbreast) in Dutch; rougegorge (red throat/chest in French; rotkehlchen (little red throat in German and röhake (red chin) in Swedish.
The Christian name Robin (Robyn) is a diminutive form of Robert and arrived in England after the Norman Conquest in 1066 but is not used in France and so presumably developed as a birds name after that date. The written record of its use is from a Scots poem of 1549 but was probably used earlier than this. The question now is why are all the allusions in the name to red when the colour of the breast is nearer to orange? The answer lies in the fact that although the fruit orange first arrived in England in the Middle Ages, the word as a name for a colour between red and yellow was not used until 1557
Why The Redbreast?
Redbreast or orange breast, why does a robin have such a feature? What is the purpose? Most birds have territories of some kind; even in densely packed seabird colonies, each pair has an area around it that its neighbours should not stray into. In the case of a gannet, for instance, the distance is about the length of the birds beak – a wise precaution! This is more akin to personal space perhaps (think holiday makers on a crowed beach) than a genuine territory, which has to serve as an area that will provide enough food for the adults and their young during the spring and summer breeding months. In the case of seabird colonies, their larder is the open sea. Robins are unusual in that they have both summer and winter territories; not only that but the female also defends a territory in both seasons too. Generally speaking, birds only defend a territory during the breeding season and even then the job is usually left to the male birds. They are also highly solitary animals, only joining together with another of their species during the breeding season. They enforce this solitary, territorial lifestyle by also being very aggressive and this is where the red breast comes in. The red breast is a warning. An in your face threat to every other robin, making the statement that this is a bird who will take no nonsense from any interloper into its territory. In many other birds the male has brighter plumage than the female in order to impress her and so warn off other males but in the robin both sexes possess it – they are both using it as a warning to other robins of both sexes to stay out of their territory. That the red breast serves this purpose has been demonstrated in experiments. Stuffed robins have been placed in robin territories at differing times of the year and the reaction of the incumbent birds have been recorded. During the breeding season in particular these stuffed “interlopers” will be warned, attacked, sometimes furiously so, to the point that if the stuffed robin was real, it would have been killed. Subsequently, parts of the stuffed bird were removed leaving only the red breast section which continued to be attacked. If it was a real bird of course, the chances are that it would have fled. It makes little sense for either party to fight to the death; in reality all this is about posturing and achieving the objective without damage.
Red is a universal sign of danger and threat in nature and stands out against green backgrounds. Red light waves are scattered least by air molecules, so it is an unmistakable signal. It is worth noting that juvenile robins don’t obtain their red breast until the autumn so as not to be mistaken by an adult and attacked. The red breast then can be seen as an evolutionary adaptation both to enable and also enabled by a highly territorial and solitary lifestyle as another of nature’s solutions to the problem of survival and in the service of becoming an ancestor; every organism’s strict biological function.
It’s a Solitary Life Until….
As the third century BC, Greek poet, Zenodotus, wisely observed, “one bush does not shelter two robins.” For much, if not most of the year, the robin is a solitary animal, spending it’s time in the shrubbery of woods and gardens feeding mainly on invertebrates of one kind or another. It will also eat small seeds and in the garden it will visit bird tables for kitchen scraps or the now huge variety of foods increasingly provided by a growing industry of retail and online outlets offering a multitude of wild bird foods. Around Christmas time though something begins to change. Another robin enters a male’s territory; it could be a male, in which case the incumbent male will have to take action to make sure he leaves quickly; it could of course be a female, in which case things will be rather different. Female robins also have a winter territory like the males but will leave it to go in search of a partner for the next breeding season, which could be as far as three months away. Territory is even more important to the robin than it is to most small, songbirds, although all will defend them, often aggressively. It has been suggested that approximately 1 in 10 robins will die in a violent dispute with another robin. It is important, therefore, that the male the female selects (yes, the female gets the final say!) is able to hold a territory that will be capable of supporting them both and perhaps 3 broods of eggs during the breeding season. The needs of those many hungry young mouths during the spring and summer means a difference in the size of winter and summer territories as well. A breeding territory can range in area from 1600 to more than 8500 square metres, whereas in the winter the size reduces to between 700 to 5000 square metres. A big size differential which presumably can be explained by quality of territory in terms of food resources, cover, nesting opportunities and perhaps the local population of robins and maybe other factors, such as the capabilities of the individuals holding that particular territory to defend it.
Giving up a territory for such a territorial creature is costly as is sharing your territory and so courtship between a pair is a guarded affair. Initially, there is a lot of testing each other out; the female will fly up to the male and then back away and both will posture to each other followed by what has been termed displacement activity, periods of seemingly disinterested behaviour, such as preening or feeding. It has been suggested that this helps to reduce the tension between the two. For the following few days the pair will quieten down, the female shadowing the male around his territory as he occasionally sings gently to her. After this the “engagement” period begins, with the male back in full song and the pair inhabiting the whole territory but ignoring each other for much of the time. The female is allowed to stay however, whilst other visitors are driven out.
Nesting and Breeding
Robins don’t generally begin nest building until sometime in March, as the days lengthen and more food becomes available. Robins are not fussy eaters and will consume, mainly invertebrates of various kinds but also berries, small seeds and a large range of other foods. Robins have a slim beak designed for relatively soft food though and so are unable to deal with very hard, tough items such as nuts. Although the timing of nesting is kicked off by changes in light, temperature and food availability, no doubt as the planet warms up due to climate change, so will robins begin to nest earlier and earlier.
Robins are cavity nesters and will adapt pretty well any space into a nest ranging from a crevice in a tree or amongst creepers to flower pots and watering cans to the truly bizarre – a human skull and a dead cat have been recorded! The nest itself is a relatively bulky structure of dead leaves, grass and moss, lined with grass, hair and feathers and there can be as many as three clutches of 5-6 eggs laid between March and July but usually just two. The eggs are usually creamy coloured and flecked with reddish brown speckles or blotches.
The female makes the nest by herself but is often fed by the male. This is of course very practical, as she can devote more time to nest construction without having to worry so much about the important business of searching for food, it also helps to strengthen the bond between the two at this very important time of raising the next generation. The male does more of this when she is actively sitting on the nest (the female is solely responsible for incubation duties) although he never brings food to the nest as that would reveal its location to predators. When the chicks have developed sufficiently, the female will leave the nest and join the male in providing food for the increasingly rapidly growing chicks. Robins’ eyes are large in proportion to their body than many birds of the same size, allowing them to feed and sing during low light, an important adaptation for an invertebrate eating, highly territorial bird. Like most so called “perching birds” – the passerines, the eggs are laid every 24 hours and the female won’t begin incubating until all the eggs are laid, this ensures that all the eggs hatch more or less at the same time. Each egg is about 2cm long and weighs about 2.5 grammes when it is laid. After about 2 weeks the eggs hatch and the chicks emerge and now both birds have the hard work of providing food for around five hungry mouths. About 1 in 5 robin nestlings go on to become fledglings; that still means that if a pair produce two broods of five eggs they will have eight offspring that successfully leave the nest. However, they have to survive a roughly three week period where they still are unable to fend for themselves outside the nest, during which time the parents continue to feed them and then they have to survive the winter. On average a robin in the wild will only live between 1.5 and 2 years although the oldest wild robin on record is 11 years 5 months. There are instances of robins in captivity living into their teens.
Robins have inspired a huge variety of beliefs and traditions, among them the idea that the robin and the wren were husband and wife and also perhaps represented summer and winter and therefore light and dark. Both these birds were hunted at the end of each of their respective seasons, thus ushering in the next and yet paradoxically, it was also considered bad luck to kill one, such bad luck included lumps forming on the right hand, milk would turn sour if the killer owned cows and if a robin’s eggs were broken so would something of the perpetrator break. Continuing the paradoxical theme, a robin entering a house in some places could mean that a death would occur in the family but could signify good luck in other in other locations. It was further believed that a cat would not chase robin and would, in fact, lose one of its limbs if it were to kill one. Unfortunately, cats do chase and kill robins in large numbers. In some places if a robin was caught in a trap instead of the desired bird, it would be released with a threat to kill it if it did not send the appropriate victim in its place. Before release a tail feather was pulled out to ensure that it would be known the next time and the threat could be carried out. Fortunately, the threat never was carried out, such was the fear of the bad luck that such an act would bring. Robins do naturally lose their tails every summer however, following the breeding season, when they undergo the summer moult that most birds have to go through, when all the feathers on their body – that vital equipment that keeps them warm, enables them to fly and communicates with others of their kind. At this time, robins and other similar birds lie low.
In Victorian England, postmen wore bright, red uniforms and were nicknamed “Robins” as a result. Often, this image would be used on the newly introduced cards to be sent at Christmas by users of the recently invented “penny post” which came into service in 1840. In due course, these metaphorical robins were replaced on the cards by the real thing, so the frequent use of them on Christmas cards has a definite starting point. However, this may have simply been formalising a link between robins and Christmas that had always existed. An older story has the robin singeing its chest when it tries to fan the flames of a fire to warm the infant Jesus. Another, although not specifically Christmas story has the robin carrying water to extinguish the fires in Hell for the souls dwelling there and so scorching its feathers and an Easter related story suggests that the robin was splashed with Christ’s blood from the crown of thorns as it tried to remove them from his head and so stem the bleeding. A second presumably Easter related myth sees the robin following a bleeding Jesus as he attempts to escape from Roman soldiers, mopping up the blood with its breast as it does so. In another Christmas related story, a robin protects the Virgin Mary after she has been cut by brambles and she flees into Egypt. The link between the robin and Christmas may have more pagan roots and forms an association with the holly berries which brighten the dark winter solstice. Perhaps though the robin’s association with Christmas and winter more generally is down to the more prosaic fact that robins are very noticeable at this time of year. They are confiding creatures, happy to approach people and take food from them; they sing during the winter and of course their bright red (actually orange chest) provides a wonderful contrast to the crisp white of fresh snow. Cold winters with snow were of course, far more common in Britain and Ireland at the time when Christmas cards were introduced. These days people may sing and dream of a white Christmas but without the red it would only be half as romantic.