One little bird has been known for centuries as the gardener’s best friend. He is also a dedicated gardener himself. For that reason pictures of robins were included in the very first illuminated manuscripts that monks created in old abbeys. Since then, this little bird has symbolised the spirit of Christmas, and the festive season wouldn’t be the same without at least one greeting card featuring a red-breasted robin. One of the very first Christmas robins appeared on the decorative border in The Sherborne Missal, c1400, and this picture is still much admired every December on contemporary greetings cards.
The robin feeds mainly on insects but despite the shortage of these in icy weather, he braves the barren winter months with us. My own robin gets up at the crack of dawn, well before the other birds, and his song jingles from the top of the leafless cherry tree, high and pure, falling down like silver bangles in perfect loops. His voice is similar to that of the nightingale, and his silvery, cheerful trills provide the best possible start to my day. His love for his garden is legendary, and he defends his territory fearlessly against anything and anyone even remotely red or pink-breasted, and that includes his own image in the car mirror. In the garden, he follows me about giving me instructions, and even rests on my spade handle. I relay to him the latest news or the next day’s weather, while he gets closely acquainted with grubs and worms appearing in the freshly turned earth. When the weather becomes really bad, I make sure that I have a large supply of the gourmet robin’s food of dry insects and mealworms. He also helps himself to the other birds’ breakfast of beef dripping , biscuits and sultanas. Over the years I have got used to and even expected to be joined by the inquisitive little visitor inside the house. It could be at any time of the day and his visit was always appreciated as it was akin to a friendly neighbour exchanging news over the garden fence. If I were doing something mundane such as ironing, my robin would perch himself on the backrest of a chair, and we would converse about the weather, the fox that jumped over the fence last night, the rascal squirrel that had been digging everywhere and then uprooting the seedlings that had just been planted… We have never run out of topics. After a while my robin would check that everything in the room was in order, and after a parting nod of his head, he would be off through the open door or a window to patrol his garden, a duty that he was taking very seriously indeed. Both robin and blackbird would scream an alarm if they spotted an intruder, which had to be followed by me running into the garden flapping my arms wildly. It would be usually, not as expected a cat, but a kestrel, and so my intervention was gratefully acknowledged. This was friendship at its best. When the young robins were exploring their garden for the first week, they would watch with fascination the water cascading down from the hose while I was watering the borders. Temptation would always prove just too much, and the bravest one would jump in the “fountain”, splashing in the sunshine and flapping his little wings. Within a few minutes he would get soaked to the skin, and then stand aside from the hose, his wings outstretched, heavy with dripping water. His look of bewilderment was priceless and I had to tell him to get dry in the sun. Walking slowly, wet wings still well up in the air, he looked like a medieval knight encased in heavy armour. Luckily the warm air would soon make him his fluffy chirpy self again.
There is something very inspiring about this friendly little bird surviving the winter months against all odds, and yet whose song rings out in the ice-bound sky announcing the oncoming spring. I can think of no better symbol of hope and endurance – the robin.