ALTHOUGH the penguin now competes with the robin for the honour of being the emblematic Christmas-card bird, the robin has been dominant since the Victorians first acquired the habit of sending cards at this time of year.
The ornithologist David Lack, in his pioneer bird biography The Life of the Robin (1941), suggested that the association between robins and Christmas originated when the red uniform of postmen earned them the nickname “robins”; many of the earliest Christmas cards actually featured a robin bearing a card in its beak.
Now, however, it is recognised that, although the Victorian postal service cemented the connection, the appropriation of the robin as a Christmas symbol antedates it by many years. Robins can be found in 18th-century Christmas pictures by urban artists, and had a reputation for tameness and friendliness from much earlier. The fact that the robin is one of the few birds that sings in the winter, and has plumage which makes it conspicuous in snow, are likely to have had some influence, too.
But we owe a debt of gratitude to Lack for revealing to the world for the first time the robin’s true nature — and the picture that he paints is not a cute or cosy one.
LACK was born in 1910, and died in 1971. He conducted ground-breaking studies, not only of the robin but also the swift; and undertook seminal work on Darwin’s finches and island ecology. He was a key figure in that reconciliation of the ideas of Darwin and genetics which became known as neo-Darwinism.
Agnostic after a traditional Anglican upbringing, in 1948 he became a committed Christian, and he wrote thoughtfully about the relationship between evolution and Christianity. (I cannot help thinking that A. N. Wilson would have written a better book about Darwin had he drawn on Lack’s wisdom.)
In his study of robins, Lack revealed that most of what was popularly believed about the birds was misleading. He was drily witty about the tradition that they and all other birds sang for joy: “Why do birds sing? The most popular answer is because they are happy. From which it could be concluded that, whereas cock robins are happy most of the year, the hens are happy only in the autumn; that cock robins are happier before than after obtaining mates, and they are happiest of all when fighting.”
Lack went on to show, through numerous examples, that singing was a sign of territoriality and belligerence rather than friendliness or joy. As for the belief that robins befriend gardeners and actively seek out their company, he revealed that robins are opportunistic feeders who are there to gobble up any insects that are exposed by the gardener’s work, and that they live for barely a year. The bird often fondly thought of as “my” robin turns out to be a series of strangers, taking advantage of our love of horticulture.
None of this need diminish our sense of delight at encountering the robin during the winter months, since it deepens our knowledge and appreciation of a familiar creature now known wondrously to be — like all avian kind — a surviving tiny, feathered dinosaur.
THIS time of the year brings out the inner puritan in the hearts of many people, believing or not, who lament the commercial subversion of “the true meaning of Christmas”, whether they believe that to be the innocent joy of children, the celebration of family or community, or the glory of the incarnation and the blessedness of the lowly and the outcast. The robin can serve as a sign of both the comfort of the hearth and the wild summons of the manger.
The poet R. S. Thomas, who was devoted to the lonely pursuit of birdwatching, and was a knowledgeable amateur ornithologist, may well have known Lack’s Life of the Robin, which was published in a popular paperback edition in 1971. Certainly he embraced the robin’s symbolic ambiguity in his poem “Song”, in which he observes that, like Christ, the robin comes to us “in his weakness But with a sharp song”.
The Revd Ian Tattum is Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Southfields, and Priest-in-Charge of St John the Divine, Earlsfield, in south London.