So we’ve chosen a vicious murdering bully for our national bird?
It’s bad enough that we probably plumped for our self-important red-breasted friend because the Victorians sentimentalised the robin as a symbol of Christmas.
Yet I suspect that the main reason it has been chosen is because it’s the one bird most people can actually recognise.
Couldn’t we have gone for something more imaginative? Where was the raven, for instance, that super-intelligent, glossy black gothic spirit of place, without which the Tower of London and the monarchy would fall? (Although that legend turns out to be another Victorian invention too, darn it).
As a fervent beach-bird botherer, I’d have opted for something truly symbolic of our island’s shores – such as the philopatric and glorious oystercatcher, with its resplendent red bill; the longest living wader, reaching up to 45 years old, a stalwart guardian of the British coastline. Or how about the cuckoo, the time-honoured signifier of spring and usurper of other birds’ nests – surely a suitable symbol of our colonial past?
It seems remiss to ignore the eider duck, too, since we can claim it as the first bird ever to be protected by law. Back in the 670s, St Cuthbert declared the eiders of the Farne Islands should be safe from predation and, presumably, would-be quilt-makers. This resolute sea duck with its outrageous pistachio-green neck also speaks to a camp British sense of humour, as anyone who’s ever heard its ah-ooo call will testify; it sounds exactly like Frankie Howerd.
In the interests of conservation, we might have picked a more endangered bird (the RSPB estimates that there are more than six million breeding pairs of robins in the UK). The humble house sparrow, for instance, a once common species whose drastically dwindling numbers could really do with the publicity. Or how about the feral pigeon or herring gull – street-smart birds far more in keeping with modern Britain?
But we’re stuck with the robin. True, it is embedded in our collective cultural memory, back to medieval times and perhaps beyond. In fact, we liked it so much that, up until the last century, we used to eat it – often in pies. Mark Cocker, in his wonderful Birds Britannica, waxes lyrical over a bird which got William Blake’s dander up: “A robin redbreast in a cage / puts all Heaven in a rage.” But Cocker also notes that the cheeky bird, which perches on my spade as I dig in the garden, has also long been considered a harbinger of death. Doesn’t sound so good now, does it?
Highly aggressive and territorial, that sweet song fluting from your fence is actually the avian equivalent of a foul-mouthed “get orf my land”. Males will peck at rivals’ napes to sever their spinal cords; 10% of all adult robin deaths are robin-on-robin, red-on-red incidents. They also launch unprovoked attacks on other, innocent species, lashing out with razor-sharp claws.
This ain’t no garden idyll, bro; it’s turf warfare. Even that pumped-up red chest has nothing to do with smoochy mating rituals. It’s solely a signal of being ready to ruck, a ruthless instinct to defend territory. Robins literally see red. When researching his revelatory book The Life of the Robin, in the 1930s, David Lack discovered his subjects would even go for stuffed robins or mere tufts of red feathers.
And you’re telling me this is a good role model for England? A hooligan bird that puffs up big, throws its weight about, jealously guards its patch and … Oh, right, I see what you mean now.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 11 Jun 2015.