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Birds in the Calendar

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<SPAN name="Page_137" id="Page_137">[137]</SPAN></span></p> <h2>THE ROBIN REDBREAST</h2> <p class="cap"><span class="dcap">Of</span> all the old proverbs that are open to argument, few offer more material for criticism than that which has it that a good name is more easily lost than won; and if ever a living creature served to illustrate the converse to the proverbial dog with a bad name, that creature is the companionable little bird that we peculiarly associate with Christmas. Traditionally, the robin is a gentle little fellow of pious associations and with a tender fancy for covering the unburied dead with leaves; but in real life he is a little fire-eater, always ready to pick a quarrel with his less pugnacious neighbours. Yet so persistently does his good name cling, that, while ever ready to condemn the aggressive sparrow for the same fault, all of us have a good word for the robin, and in few of our wild birds are character and reputation so divergent.</p> <p>Surely, however, the most interesting aspect of this familiar bird is its tameness, not to say attachment to ourselves, and so marked is its complete absence of fear that it is a wild bird in name only, and indeed<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_138" id="Page_138">[138]</SPAN></span> few cage birds are ever so bold as to perch on the gardener's spade on the look-out for the worms as he turns them up from the damp soil. The robin might, in fact, furnish the text of a lay-sermon on the fruits of kindness to animals, and those dialectical people who ask whether we are kind to the robin because it trusts us, or whether, on the other hand, it trusts us because we are kind to it, ask a foolish question that raises a wholly unnecessary confusion between cause and effect. It is a question that those, at any rate, who have seen the bird in countries where it is treated differently will have no difficulty whatever in answering. Broadly speaking, the redbreast has the best time of it in northern lands. This tolerance has not, as has been suggested, any connection with Protestantism, for such a distinction would exclude the greater part of Ireland, where, as it happens, the bird is as safe from persecution as in Britain, since the superstitious peasants firmly believe that anyone killing a "spiddog" will be punished by a lump growing on the palm of his hand. The untoward fate of the robin in Latin countries<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_139" id="Page_139">[139]</SPAN></span> bordering the Mediterranean has nothing to do with religion, but is merely the result of a pernicious habit of killing all manner of small birds for the table. The sight of rows of dead robins laid out on poulterers' stalls in the markets of Italy and southern France inspires such righteous indignation in British tourists as to make them forget for the moment that larks are exposed in the same way in Bond Street and at Leadenhall. In Italy and Provence, taught by sad experience the robin is as shy as any other small bird. It has learnt its lesson like the robins in the north, but the lesson is different. The most friendly robin I ever remember meeting with, out of England was in a garden attached to a caf&eacute; in Trebizond, where, hopping round my chair and picking up crumbs, it made me feel curiously at home. Similar treatment of other wild birds would in time produce the same result, and even the suspicious starling and stand-off rook might be taught to forget their fear of us. The robin, feeding less on fruit and grain than on worms and insects, has not made an enemy of the farmer or gardener. The common, too common, sparrow,<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_140" id="Page_140">[140]</SPAN></span> is another fearless neighbour, but its freedom from persecution, of late somewhat threatened by Sparrow Clubs, is due less to affection than to the futility of making any impression on such hordes as infest our streets.</p> <p>No act of the robin's more forcibly illustrates its trust in man than the manner in which, at a season when all animals are abnormally shy and suspicious, it makes its nest not only near our dwellings, but actually in many cases under the same roof as ourselves. Letterboxes, flowerpots, old boots, and bookshelves have all done duty, and I even remember a pair of robins, many years ago in Kent, bringing up two broods in an old rat trap which, fortunately too rusty to act, was still set and baited with a withered piece of bacon. Pages might be filled with the mere enumeration of curious and eccentric nesting sites chosen by this fearless bird, but a single proof of its indifference to the presence of man during the time of incubation may be cited from the MS. notebooks of the second Earl of Malmesbury, which I have read in the library at Heron Court. It seems that, while the east wing of that<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_141" id="Page_141">[141]</SPAN></span> pleasant mansion was being built, a pair of robins, having successfully brought up one family in one of the unfinished rooms, actually reared a second brood in a hole made for a scaffold-pole, though the sitting bird, being immediately beneath a plank on which the plasterers stood at work, was repeatedly splashed with mortar! The egg of the robin is subject to considerable variety of type. I think it was the late Lord Lilford who, speaking on the subject of a Bill for the protection of wild birds' eggs, then before the House of Lords, gave it as his belief that no ornithologist of repute would swear to the name of a single British bird's egg without positively seeing one or other of the parent birds fly off the nest. This was, perhaps, a little overstating the difficulty of evidence, since any schoolboy with a fancy for birds-nesting might without hesitation identify such pronounced types as those of the chaffinch, with its purple blotches, the song-thrush with its black spots on a blue ground, or the nightingale, which resembles a miniature olive. Eggs, on the other hand, like those of the house sparrow, redshank<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_142" id="Page_142">[142]</SPAN></span> and some of the smaller warblers, are so easily confused with those of allied species that Lord Lilford's caution is by no means superfluous. Ordinarily speaking, the robin's egg is white, with red spots at one end, but I remember taking at Bexley, nearly thirty years ago, an immaculate one of coffee colour. As the robin is a favourite foster-parent with cuckoos, my first thought was that this might be an unusually small egg of the parasitic bird, which was very plentiful thereabouts. It so happened, however, that three days after I had abstracted the first and only egg I took from that nest, there was a second of the same type; and, much as I would have liked this also for my collection, I left it in the nest so as to set all doubts at rest. My moderation was rewarded, for no one else found the nest, and in due course the coffee-coloured egg produced a robin like the rest.</p> <p>The robin is anything but a gregarious bird. Its fighting temper doubtless leads it to keep its own company, and we rarely see more than one singing on the same bush, or seeking for food on the same lawn. Yet, though it is with us all the year, it is known to perform<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_143" id="Page_143">[143]</SPAN></span> migrations within these islands, and possibly also overseas, chiefly connected with commissariat difficulties, and it is probable that on such occasions many robins may travel in company, though I have not been so fortunate as to come across them in their pilgrimage. Equally interesting, however, is the habit which the bird has in Devonshire of occasionally going down to the rocks on the seashore, as I have often noticed in the neighbourhood of Teignmouth and Torquay. What manner of food the redbreast may find in such surroundings is a mystery, but there it certainly spends some of its time, bobbing at the edge of the rock pools in much the same fashion as the dipper on inland waters.</p> <p>Young robins are turned adrift at an early age to look after themselves, a result of the parent bird always rearing two families in the year, and in many cases even three, so that they have not too much time to devote to the upbringing of each. Another consequence of this prolific habit is that the robin has to make its nest earlier than most of our wild birds, and its nest has, in fact, been found near Torquay during the first week of January.<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_144" id="Page_144">[144]</SPAN></span></p> <p>It has long been the pardonable fancy of Englishmen exiled to new homes under the palms or pines, in the scorching tropical sun or in the biting northern blast, to misname all manner of conspicuous birds after well-remembered kinds left at home in the woods and fields of the old country. As might be expected of a bird so characteristic of English scenes, and so closely associated with the festival that always brings nostalgia to the emigrant, the robin has its share of these namesakes, and several of them bear little likeness to the original. In New South Wales, I remember being shown a "robin" which, though perhaps a little smaller, was not unlike our own bird, but the "robin" that was pointed out to me in the States, from Maine to Carolina, was as big as a thrush. Yet it had the red breast, by which, particularly conspicuous against a background of snow, this popular little bird is always recognisable, the male as well as the female. Indeed, to all outward appearance the sexes are absolutely alike, a striking contrast to the cock and hen pheasant, the first bird dealt with in these notes, as this is the last.</p>
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