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!

Robin

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.
 
Jo
 
 
 
 

65 thoughts on “The robin redbreast”

  1. Hi, Jo,
    I had no idea our robins were so different and am now hoping I haven’t ever mentioned them in my 16th century novels because if I did it would surely have been as a harbinger of spring. Our robins here in Maine head south for the winter and only return when there is a chance of plucking nice fat worms out of unfrozen ground.
    Happy holidays to all of the word wenches, along with a huge thank you for introducing me to so many terrific books, your own and those by guest bloggers, during the past year.
    Kathy/Kaitlyn

    Reply
  2. Hi, Jo,
    I had no idea our robins were so different and am now hoping I haven’t ever mentioned them in my 16th century novels because if I did it would surely have been as a harbinger of spring. Our robins here in Maine head south for the winter and only return when there is a chance of plucking nice fat worms out of unfrozen ground.
    Happy holidays to all of the word wenches, along with a huge thank you for introducing me to so many terrific books, your own and those by guest bloggers, during the past year.
    Kathy/Kaitlyn

    Reply
  3. Hi, Jo,
    I had no idea our robins were so different and am now hoping I haven’t ever mentioned them in my 16th century novels because if I did it would surely have been as a harbinger of spring. Our robins here in Maine head south for the winter and only return when there is a chance of plucking nice fat worms out of unfrozen ground.
    Happy holidays to all of the word wenches, along with a huge thank you for introducing me to so many terrific books, your own and those by guest bloggers, during the past year.
    Kathy/Kaitlyn

    Reply
  4. Hi, Jo,
    I had no idea our robins were so different and am now hoping I haven’t ever mentioned them in my 16th century novels because if I did it would surely have been as a harbinger of spring. Our robins here in Maine head south for the winter and only return when there is a chance of plucking nice fat worms out of unfrozen ground.
    Happy holidays to all of the word wenches, along with a huge thank you for introducing me to so many terrific books, your own and those by guest bloggers, during the past year.
    Kathy/Kaitlyn

    Reply
  5. Hi, Jo,
    I had no idea our robins were so different and am now hoping I haven’t ever mentioned them in my 16th century novels because if I did it would surely have been as a harbinger of spring. Our robins here in Maine head south for the winter and only return when there is a chance of plucking nice fat worms out of unfrozen ground.
    Happy holidays to all of the word wenches, along with a huge thank you for introducing me to so many terrific books, your own and those by guest bloggers, during the past year.
    Kathy/Kaitlyn

    Reply
  6. I knew that the American robin and European robin were different but I’ve never seen them side by side. Fascinating. I’d always been told that when the English came to America, they named the birds they saw here after familiar birds from back “home.”
    If you want more fascinating tidbits about the European robin than this Wikipedia article is right up your alley.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_robin

    Reply
  7. I knew that the American robin and European robin were different but I’ve never seen them side by side. Fascinating. I’d always been told that when the English came to America, they named the birds they saw here after familiar birds from back “home.”
    If you want more fascinating tidbits about the European robin than this Wikipedia article is right up your alley.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_robin

    Reply
  8. I knew that the American robin and European robin were different but I’ve never seen them side by side. Fascinating. I’d always been told that when the English came to America, they named the birds they saw here after familiar birds from back “home.”
    If you want more fascinating tidbits about the European robin than this Wikipedia article is right up your alley.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_robin

    Reply
  9. I knew that the American robin and European robin were different but I’ve never seen them side by side. Fascinating. I’d always been told that when the English came to America, they named the birds they saw here after familiar birds from back “home.”
    If you want more fascinating tidbits about the European robin than this Wikipedia article is right up your alley.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_robin

    Reply
  10. I knew that the American robin and European robin were different but I’ve never seen them side by side. Fascinating. I’d always been told that when the English came to America, they named the birds they saw here after familiar birds from back “home.”
    If you want more fascinating tidbits about the European robin than this Wikipedia article is right up your alley.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_robin

    Reply
  11. Geese are a winter symbol for me. We’re on the winter rest area for some Canadian geese. They show up around November and are here until spring. Most of them depart when the goslings are able to fly sometime in April or May.

    Reply
  12. Geese are a winter symbol for me. We’re on the winter rest area for some Canadian geese. They show up around November and are here until spring. Most of them depart when the goslings are able to fly sometime in April or May.

    Reply
  13. Geese are a winter symbol for me. We’re on the winter rest area for some Canadian geese. They show up around November and are here until spring. Most of them depart when the goslings are able to fly sometime in April or May.

    Reply
  14. Geese are a winter symbol for me. We’re on the winter rest area for some Canadian geese. They show up around November and are here until spring. Most of them depart when the goslings are able to fly sometime in April or May.

    Reply
  15. Geese are a winter symbol for me. We’re on the winter rest area for some Canadian geese. They show up around November and are here until spring. Most of them depart when the goslings are able to fly sometime in April or May.

    Reply
  16. Interesting. Maybe red was a hard dye to keep red in the olden days and quickly faded to that orangey color, and everyone continued to call it red.
    The orange breast was a surprise to me, maybe because all the illustrations of English robins I ever saw growing up definitely had red breasts.
    The Australian robin is very red. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ozjulian/5848471732/ But we also get them in hot pink and other colors. Do a google image search for Australian robins and you’ll see what I mean.

    Reply
  17. Interesting. Maybe red was a hard dye to keep red in the olden days and quickly faded to that orangey color, and everyone continued to call it red.
    The orange breast was a surprise to me, maybe because all the illustrations of English robins I ever saw growing up definitely had red breasts.
    The Australian robin is very red. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ozjulian/5848471732/ But we also get them in hot pink and other colors. Do a google image search for Australian robins and you’ll see what I mean.

    Reply
  18. Interesting. Maybe red was a hard dye to keep red in the olden days and quickly faded to that orangey color, and everyone continued to call it red.
    The orange breast was a surprise to me, maybe because all the illustrations of English robins I ever saw growing up definitely had red breasts.
    The Australian robin is very red. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ozjulian/5848471732/ But we also get them in hot pink and other colors. Do a google image search for Australian robins and you’ll see what I mean.

    Reply
  19. Interesting. Maybe red was a hard dye to keep red in the olden days and quickly faded to that orangey color, and everyone continued to call it red.
    The orange breast was a surprise to me, maybe because all the illustrations of English robins I ever saw growing up definitely had red breasts.
    The Australian robin is very red. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ozjulian/5848471732/ But we also get them in hot pink and other colors. Do a google image search for Australian robins and you’ll see what I mean.

    Reply
  20. Interesting. Maybe red was a hard dye to keep red in the olden days and quickly faded to that orangey color, and everyone continued to call it red.
    The orange breast was a surprise to me, maybe because all the illustrations of English robins I ever saw growing up definitely had red breasts.
    The Australian robin is very red. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ozjulian/5848471732/ But we also get them in hot pink and other colors. Do a google image search for Australian robins and you’ll see what I mean.

    Reply
  21. Wow…those were amazing – hot pink robins. Thanks for mentioning it because I went and looked at a lot of Australian robin pictures. Live and learn.

    Reply
  22. Wow…those were amazing – hot pink robins. Thanks for mentioning it because I went and looked at a lot of Australian robin pictures. Live and learn.

    Reply
  23. Wow…those were amazing – hot pink robins. Thanks for mentioning it because I went and looked at a lot of Australian robin pictures. Live and learn.

    Reply
  24. Wow…those were amazing – hot pink robins. Thanks for mentioning it because I went and looked at a lot of Australian robin pictures. Live and learn.

    Reply
  25. Wow…those were amazing – hot pink robins. Thanks for mentioning it because I went and looked at a lot of Australian robin pictures. Live and learn.

    Reply
  26. I’m in Tasmania and we have scarlet Robins here. However they are relatively solitary. Usually only see more than one during the breeding season. I’m amazed that all the red robins, scarlet robins, red breast robins, even similar in size and appearance seem to be a different species. When I lived in NSW I don’t ever remember seeing a Scarlet Robin. I suppose it was because the terrain was very flat, dry and dusty and the wrong type of vegetation, although we did have other types of robins.

    Reply
  27. I’m in Tasmania and we have scarlet Robins here. However they are relatively solitary. Usually only see more than one during the breeding season. I’m amazed that all the red robins, scarlet robins, red breast robins, even similar in size and appearance seem to be a different species. When I lived in NSW I don’t ever remember seeing a Scarlet Robin. I suppose it was because the terrain was very flat, dry and dusty and the wrong type of vegetation, although we did have other types of robins.

    Reply
  28. I’m in Tasmania and we have scarlet Robins here. However they are relatively solitary. Usually only see more than one during the breeding season. I’m amazed that all the red robins, scarlet robins, red breast robins, even similar in size and appearance seem to be a different species. When I lived in NSW I don’t ever remember seeing a Scarlet Robin. I suppose it was because the terrain was very flat, dry and dusty and the wrong type of vegetation, although we did have other types of robins.

    Reply
  29. I’m in Tasmania and we have scarlet Robins here. However they are relatively solitary. Usually only see more than one during the breeding season. I’m amazed that all the red robins, scarlet robins, red breast robins, even similar in size and appearance seem to be a different species. When I lived in NSW I don’t ever remember seeing a Scarlet Robin. I suppose it was because the terrain was very flat, dry and dusty and the wrong type of vegetation, although we did have other types of robins.

    Reply
  30. I’m in Tasmania and we have scarlet Robins here. However they are relatively solitary. Usually only see more than one during the breeding season. I’m amazed that all the red robins, scarlet robins, red breast robins, even similar in size and appearance seem to be a different species. When I lived in NSW I don’t ever remember seeing a Scarlet Robin. I suppose it was because the terrain was very flat, dry and dusty and the wrong type of vegetation, although we did have other types of robins.

    Reply
  31. I love the way that robins will become tame and sit on the handle of my spade for a grandstand view of me gardening!
    Its true that English robins don’t migrate, but I believe that some from northern Europe do. More intriguing though is the way that the birds sense the tilt of the earth’s magnetic field in order to navigate. The best explanation at present is that they exploit the phenomenon of quantum entanglement to achieve the extreme sensitivity required.
    Hence Jim Al-khalili coined the term ‘Quantum Robin’ in his book ‘Life on the Edge’
    I imagine that Christmas Cards may soon embrace Quantum Mechanics!
    Its a wonderful world. 🙂

    Reply
  32. I love the way that robins will become tame and sit on the handle of my spade for a grandstand view of me gardening!
    Its true that English robins don’t migrate, but I believe that some from northern Europe do. More intriguing though is the way that the birds sense the tilt of the earth’s magnetic field in order to navigate. The best explanation at present is that they exploit the phenomenon of quantum entanglement to achieve the extreme sensitivity required.
    Hence Jim Al-khalili coined the term ‘Quantum Robin’ in his book ‘Life on the Edge’
    I imagine that Christmas Cards may soon embrace Quantum Mechanics!
    Its a wonderful world. 🙂

    Reply
  33. I love the way that robins will become tame and sit on the handle of my spade for a grandstand view of me gardening!
    Its true that English robins don’t migrate, but I believe that some from northern Europe do. More intriguing though is the way that the birds sense the tilt of the earth’s magnetic field in order to navigate. The best explanation at present is that they exploit the phenomenon of quantum entanglement to achieve the extreme sensitivity required.
    Hence Jim Al-khalili coined the term ‘Quantum Robin’ in his book ‘Life on the Edge’
    I imagine that Christmas Cards may soon embrace Quantum Mechanics!
    Its a wonderful world. 🙂

    Reply
  34. I love the way that robins will become tame and sit on the handle of my spade for a grandstand view of me gardening!
    Its true that English robins don’t migrate, but I believe that some from northern Europe do. More intriguing though is the way that the birds sense the tilt of the earth’s magnetic field in order to navigate. The best explanation at present is that they exploit the phenomenon of quantum entanglement to achieve the extreme sensitivity required.
    Hence Jim Al-khalili coined the term ‘Quantum Robin’ in his book ‘Life on the Edge’
    I imagine that Christmas Cards may soon embrace Quantum Mechanics!
    Its a wonderful world. 🙂

    Reply
  35. I love the way that robins will become tame and sit on the handle of my spade for a grandstand view of me gardening!
    Its true that English robins don’t migrate, but I believe that some from northern Europe do. More intriguing though is the way that the birds sense the tilt of the earth’s magnetic field in order to navigate. The best explanation at present is that they exploit the phenomenon of quantum entanglement to achieve the extreme sensitivity required.
    Hence Jim Al-khalili coined the term ‘Quantum Robin’ in his book ‘Life on the Edge’
    I imagine that Christmas Cards may soon embrace Quantum Mechanics!
    Its a wonderful world. 🙂

    Reply
  36. Thanks for the article. My mental picture of the English robin came from Frances Hodge Burnett’s “Secret Garden.” I always knew it was different from the North American robin, but never knew why. But our North American ones have orange breasts also. Apparently the only true redbreasts live in Australia (and perhaps New Zealand? I know they differ greatly, but the are also more like each other than they are like the island of Great Britain or like North America?)

    Reply
  37. Thanks for the article. My mental picture of the English robin came from Frances Hodge Burnett’s “Secret Garden.” I always knew it was different from the North American robin, but never knew why. But our North American ones have orange breasts also. Apparently the only true redbreasts live in Australia (and perhaps New Zealand? I know they differ greatly, but the are also more like each other than they are like the island of Great Britain or like North America?)

    Reply
  38. Thanks for the article. My mental picture of the English robin came from Frances Hodge Burnett’s “Secret Garden.” I always knew it was different from the North American robin, but never knew why. But our North American ones have orange breasts also. Apparently the only true redbreasts live in Australia (and perhaps New Zealand? I know they differ greatly, but the are also more like each other than they are like the island of Great Britain or like North America?)

    Reply
  39. Thanks for the article. My mental picture of the English robin came from Frances Hodge Burnett’s “Secret Garden.” I always knew it was different from the North American robin, but never knew why. But our North American ones have orange breasts also. Apparently the only true redbreasts live in Australia (and perhaps New Zealand? I know they differ greatly, but the are also more like each other than they are like the island of Great Britain or like North America?)

    Reply
  40. Thanks for the article. My mental picture of the English robin came from Frances Hodge Burnett’s “Secret Garden.” I always knew it was different from the North American robin, but never knew why. But our North American ones have orange breasts also. Apparently the only true redbreasts live in Australia (and perhaps New Zealand? I know they differ greatly, but the are also more like each other than they are like the island of Great Britain or like North America?)

    Reply
  41. Bird navigation is fascinating. They used to think it was just magnetism, but now they’re discovering so much more. Other animals, too, from eels to butterflies.

    Reply
  42. Bird navigation is fascinating. They used to think it was just magnetism, but now they’re discovering so much more. Other animals, too, from eels to butterflies.

    Reply
  43. Bird navigation is fascinating. They used to think it was just magnetism, but now they’re discovering so much more. Other animals, too, from eels to butterflies.

    Reply
  44. Bird navigation is fascinating. They used to think it was just magnetism, but now they’re discovering so much more. Other animals, too, from eels to butterflies.

    Reply
  45. Bird navigation is fascinating. They used to think it was just magnetism, but now they’re discovering so much more. Other animals, too, from eels to butterflies.

    Reply

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