TERRY PRONE: Bob, bob, bobbin’ along, robbin’ others of the chance of popularity

Not even the bulldog on a trampoline in the John Lewis ad can match the robin as an object of affection at Christmas, writes Terry Prone

IT’S got an untouchable brand. It’s never had a scandal. Never experienced a withdrawal or callback.

It is equally at home in print, electronic, and social media.

The bulldog jumping on the trampoline in the John Lewis ad doesn’t come near it as a potential object of affection, this Christmas. But then, it more or less owns Christmas, does it not?

If a tender went out asking PR companies to propose a campaign to make one single kind of bird the most popular in the western world, it would be a counterintuitive PR executive who would propose the crow or the seagull.

Of course, the crow is so clever, it’s even been observed making its own tools and dropping nuts on roads so that passing cars would crack the shells and save the bird time, but clever is rarely adorable, and if you’re aiming at adorable, the robin has the whole franchise.

What other bird has its own season, when it appears on decorations and Christmas cards looking unbearably perky?

The red-breasted outfit is pretty to start with, but it’s the hopping, the year-round singing —most birds are seasonal when it comes to singing — and the head on one side habit that seal the deal.

The first time I realised the strength of the capacity for the robin to have positivity projected onto it was when my sister, my mother, and I were watching my father working out in the back garden. He had emphysema, and so after the smallest bit of digging would need to lean on the handle of the big spade in order to get his breath back. During one of these stretches of concentration on breathing, a robin appeared, hopped around him for a while, then bopped up on the cross-piece of the spade and put its head on one side to look up at him.

“That robin loves your father,” my mother said, in a burst of untypical sentimentality my sister cut right through by suggesting the only reason the bird was hanging around and singing so noisily at our father was that it wanted him to get on with the job of digging up worms for consumption.

My mother was livid, pointing out that this robin had built its nest in my father’s tool pouch in the shed and my father had bought a whole new set of tools so as not to disturb it, its mate, and their offspring. Of course the robin loved him, was the inescapable message for me and my sister, and to this day we get flummoxed with nostalgia whenever we see a redbreast. For a long time we kept the cup-shaped nest that had been located in the tool-punch, marvelling at its clever interweaving of leaves, hair, moss, and twigs.

According to the new survey from Birdwatch Ireland, the robin is our most common garden bird and 99.8% of households reported seeing robins, slightly ahead of the blackbird, followed by the blue tit, the great tit, the coal tit, magpie and goldfinch.

The goldfinch is experiencing something of a resurgence, following a die-off due to trichomoniasis disease.

Goldfinches appear to be doing well because so many people in winter months offer food such as sunflower hearts. The robin — often called the gardener’s friend — seems to do well when the ground is being turned over and revealing worms, but markedly less well when the ground hardens in winter. They may seem tubby little lads, but they can use up to 10% of their body weight keeping warm over one cold winter’s night.

If you want to help out, put up a hanging basket, and sling kitchen scraps, fat, and cheese into it, with nuts, cake, biscuit crumbs, and dried fruit as the fancy takes you. Just make sure it’s miles from where the cats can get to it, and close enough for you to see the birds eating.

It’s always easy to spot a robin, but if we have plenty of snow this winter, it will stand out against the white in a bright red splurt of colour. Grandparents may even revive a nursery song that goes back to the 16th century, getting the toddlers to chime in on the “poor thing” sympathy vote: “The North wind doth blow and we will have snow, and what will poor robin do then? Poor thing. He’ll sit in the barn and keep himself warm and hide his head under his wing. Poor thing.”

What the song doesn’t say is that if the poor thing sits in a barn, it’s going to be HIS barn for the winter, and if another robin even thinks about taking over part of said barn, it risks its life, since this is one of the most aggressive birds alive.

Even its red breast has nothing to do with courtship or attracting a partner. It’s like a red rag to a bull, only more so, because bulls are colourblind and are irritated, not by the colour of the matador’s cloak, but by its movements.

The robin, on the other hand, knows very well that red means another robin is threatening the territory, and leaps into action.

Back in the days of sailing ships, two robins decided to travel halfway around the world on a tall-masted ship and fought each other to a standstill before separating the ship halfway down the middle. Thereafter, one of the birds owned the bow section while the other owned the rear of the vessel and they ignored each other. Robins have been filmed knocking hell out of stuffed versions of themselves.

They can and do go to war with a tied-together tuft of red feathers. Singing while they’re at it, because robins use their song mostly as a threat. Two competing robins may even have a sing-off.

They’re not bothered about thrushes or blackbirds, but they’re seriously averse to sharing their bit of land with other robins.

None of this matters when it comes to robin reputation.

What matters is looks, appealing mannerisms and sweet songs.

Because the robin has that killer combination, it not only gets away with murder, but also has legends built around its ancestors. Like the one about the fire in the stable at Bethlehem and the Virgin Mary realising that the Baby Jesus was wakeful from cold. She asked the cow to blow on the dying fire, but the cow slept on, regardless. Ditto the donkey. Then in flew a robin, who lay on the ashes and flapped its wings until the fire revived, then bringing twigs and little sticks until it got a good blaze going. But the blaze scorched its little chest red, and the mother of the now cosy baby told the robin it would always have a bright red chest, as a “blessed reminder of your good deed.”

So even if they are feisty fighters, robins come into their own as November draws on. Rightly so.

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