The Festive Robin

By Steve Huggins

Owen has just returned from a hugely successful photography trip to the United Kingdom taking thousands of photographs of some of the UK’s most well-known birds. One of the birds that seemed to be ever-present and always vying to be number one in Owen’s camera lens was the European Robin. He had many close-up opportunities to enjoy these favorite birds as they sang their joyous songs and generally made themselves known to all around.

European Robin

Thanksgiving is an American Holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November every year. It’s a hugely popular holiday that brings families back together from wherever they may be to share a great meal, celebrate things that we are thankful for and maybe watch a football game too. A traditional Thanksgiving meal for most families involves the cooking of a turkey. It is estimated that over 45 million turkeys are bred each year just for this one day! Thanksgiving is a tradition that started back in 1621 when the English ‘Plymouth pilgrims’ from the Mayflower shared their autumn harvest with the local Wampanoag Native American people. Feasts like this carried on annually until 1789 when George Washington ordered the first Thanksgiving proclamation which several states then issued days of Thanksgiving but on different days. Finally in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the tradition a National Holiday on the final Thursday in November. Franklin D. Roosevelt made a slight change to the tradition in 1939 by changing the day to the fourth Thursday in November with the aim to help retail sales during the Great Depression. The holiday has remained on this day ever since.

European Robin

Now, what does Thanksgiving have to do with the European Robin you may ask? Well, not much really, but remember those Thanksgiving turkeys? In the UK there isn’t a Thanksgiving Holiday although there is a day known as Harvest Festival that involves households donating produce, especially homegrown goods or tinned goods to charity. This is normally organized by schools, churches and even pubs. So what about those turkeys? Well in the UK the turkey is the traditional meat cooked for the annual Christmas meal with over 10 million turkeys raised and slaughtered especially for Christmas. Traditional American Thanksgiving meals and United Kingdom Christmas meals are almost identical.

European Robin

So with that festive turkey meal link between the US Thanksgiving and the UK Christmas holidays here is why the Robin is star of this blog – The European Robin has long been the ‘Christmas Bird’ in the United Kingdom, if you receive a Christmas Card from a friend or relative in the UK it is highly likely there will be a Robin in the picture. The Christmas card will usually feature the Robin with a snowy background and maybe some holly and berries. The European Robin is in fact Britain’s national bird and has been since 1960. The Robin’s strong association with Christmas can be traced back to Victorian days when during this period postal workers delivering festive mail wore red jackets and were nicknamed ‘Robins’.

Here are some quick facts about the European Robin

  • The familiar European Robin’s scientific name is erithacus rubecula. Erithracus comes the from Greek ‘erithakos’, a generic reference to a small bird. Rubecula comes from the Latin ‘rubeus’ – meaning a bramble – and the suffix ‘cola’, an inhabitant. There are nine European robin sub-species
  • The European Robin is actually a member of the Chat or Flycatcher family.
  • The Robins that Julie Andrews duetted with in the 1964 movie Mary Poppins were actually American Robins even though the scene was in London. A true hollywood blooper!
  • Unlike many other species of bird in the UK the Robin is not in decline. In fact its population is on the rise; an increase of over 45% since 1970.
  • Robins in the UK are mostly resident, however you may see more of them in the winter as their numbers are bolstered by large numbers of migrant Robins from northern clines such as Scandinavia or Russia.
  • Robins have many popular nicknames but Robin redbreast is by far the most well known
  • Robins are extremely friendly birds in the UK, it is very common while gardening to have a Robin appear within a few feet almost instantaneously. They are looking for worms and grubs turned over while gardening. This behavior mirrors the behavior of ancestors in the past that would follow animals such as Wild Boar in their woodland habitats.
  • Robins may look cute and adorable but they will defend their territory from other robin intruders to the death on occasion.
  • Robins sing year round, only going quiet during times of molt. Though it is usually the males that sing, females will also sing on occasion.
  • European Robins and American Robins are not related. American Robins are part of the Thrush family ‘Turdus’.
American Robin
  • American Robins are generally not associated with Christmas. Most American Robins migrate from northern states to warmer southern states and even Mexico. If there is a good food supply some will over-winter in the northern states, however in the north many still think of a robin sighting in March as the first sign of spring.
  • Many people believe that a visit from a Robin indicates the presence of a loved one that has passed away and that the loved one is at peace.