European Robin

The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), most commonly known in Anglophone Europe simply as the Robin, is a small insectivorous passerine bird that was formerly classed as a member of the thrush family (Turdidae), but is now considered to be a chat. Around 12.5–14.0 cm (5.0–5.5 in) in length, the male and female are similar in colouration, with an orange breast and face lined with grey, brown upperparts and a whitish belly. It is found across Europe, east to Western Siberia and south to North Africa; it is sedentary in most of its range except the far north.

English: An adult Robin from Gran Canaria, subspecies marionae which is exclusive to this island. Photo by Juan Emilio
English: An adult Robin from Gran Canaria, subspecies marionae which is exclusive to this island. Photo by Juan Emilio

The term Robin is also applied to some birds in other families with red or orange breasts. These include theAmerican Robin (Turdus migratorius), which is a thrush, and the Australian red robins of the genus Petroica, members of a family whose relationships are unclear.

Cultural Depictions

Redbreast Baxter print c1880
Redbreast Baxter print c1880

The robin features prominently in British folklore, and that of northwestern France, but much less so in other parts of Europe. It was held to be a storm-cloud bird and sacred to Thor, the god of thunder, in Norse mythology. Robins also feature in the traditional children’s tale, Babes in the Wood; the birds cover the dead bodies of the children. More recently, the robin has become strongly associated with Christmas, taking a starring role on many Christmas cards since the mid 19th century. The Robin has also appeared on many Christmas postage stamps. An old British folk tale seeks to explain the Robin’s distinctive breast. Legend has it that when Jesus was dying on the cross, the Robin, then simply brown in colour, flew to his side and sang into his ear in order to comfort him in his pain. The blood from his wounds stained the Robin’s breast, and thereafter all Robins got the mark of Christ’s blood upon them. An alternative legend has it that its breast was scorched fetching water for souls in Purgatory. The association with Christmas, however, more probably arises from the fact that postmen in Victorian Britain wore red jackets and were nicknamed “Robins”; the Robin featured on the Christmas card is an emblem of the postman delivering the card.

In the 1960s, in a vote publicised by The Times newspaper, the Robin was adopted as the unofficial national bird of the UK. The Robin was then used as a symbol of a Bird Protection Society.

Several English and Welsh sports organisations are nicknamed “The Robins”. These include the professional football clubs Bristol City,Swindon TownCheltenham Town (whose home colours are red) and, traditionally, Wrexham FC, as well as the English Rugby League team Hull Kingston Rovers (whose home colours are white with a red band). A small bird is an unusual choice, though it is thought to symbolise agility in darting around the field. Moreover, the Swindon Robins is the full name of the local Speedway promotion.

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