The Songbirds of Winter

Nederlandsche_vogelen_(KB)_-_Turdus_merula_(016f)Nicola here. It’s December 28th and day four of the twelve days of Christmas. These days when I wake up in the mornings it’s usually still dark so I doze for a bit before getting up to make the morning tea and let the dogs out. One of the first sounds I often hear, as dawn is breaking, is birdsong.

In the well-known song, on the fourth day of Christmas, my true loves gives to me “four calling birds” as well as the three French hens, two turtle doves and the partridge in the pear tree. Originally, however the words were “four colly birds,” which in 1780 when the song was written meant four blackbirds. These were the European blackbirds that are the colour of coal dust. The words were changed to “calling birds” in some versions at the start of the 20th century as so many people didn’t know that “colly bird” was a northern dialect word for a black bird.

In another old nursery rhyme four and twenty blackbirds are baked in a pie and “when the pie was opened the birds began to sing”. This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds (although bad enough); in medieval cuisine, the live birds were only put under the pie crust at the last minute to give everyone a surprise when it was served. It certainly would have given you a surprise, I imagine, to find what the blackbirds might have deposited in your pie! (The picture of the blackbird is by Cornelius Nozeman from the collections of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, part of which is available on Wikimedia Commons.)

This brings me back to waking up in the early morning hearing birdsong. I had thought it was a blackbird in the garden but Robin it turns out that they don’t start singing until the end of January when the male blackbirds start to claim their territories. No, it is the bright and beautiful little European Robin that is perched on our weeping pear tree, singing away as the dawn breaks. Happy Fourth Day of Christmas!

What do you wake up to in the mornings?  Music, a news programme, an alarm, birdsong or like me a nice up of tea? If you would like to listen to the dawn chorus there is a link here.

The robin redbreast

Blue2All joy of the season!

The robin is a symbol of Christmas in Britain, though I'm not sure why. It lives here year round, but it's not the only bird to do so. There are explanations. One is a connection with early postmen, who wore red coats — therefore robin red-breasts on cards. It's not completely convincing. Another is a legend about the robin keeping the fire going in the stable to keep the baby Jesus warm and its breast catching fire.  A sweet tale, but the association of the robin with Christmas seems to come in Victorian times. 

Perhaps it's simply because it's a friendly (to humans, at least) little bird with a cheerful colouring in that red breast. Except that its breast isn't red. It is, if you look, distinctly orange!


Why then, so famously red? I've heard that the word "orange" came late to English and that "red" was used for orange, but according to the OED Robin Redbreast crops up in the mid 16th century at about the same time that "orange" comes into use, both as a fruit and a colour.

So it's a mystery! But the robin does have a very benign reputation, as these quotes show.

1550   R. Crowley One & Thyrtye Epigrammes sig. Cviv,   When the short dayes begyn to be colde Robinredbrest wil come home to ye.
1612   J. Webster White Divel (Routledge) v. 45/2   The robin-red~breast and the wren..with leaves and flowers do cover The friendless bodies of unburied men.
1683   T. Tryon Way to Health 448   The Raven as Robinunfit for food,..and the pretty Robbin-Red-Breast for its Innocency, are very seldom killed.
The North American robin is a very different bird. I'm sure it's fine, but to me it's not as cute. It's sleeker and it flocks, whereas our robin is solitary and hangs out in our gardens.
Whichever you prefer, may the birds of Christmas be kind as the robin and the wren.