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15 December 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

Killer on a Christmas card

The robin may be a festive symbol, but don't be fooled by his chirpy ways, writes David Cox

By David Cox

There he is again, jauntily clasping a snow-bedecked holly sprig, beady eyes peering down from your mantelpiece on card after card. Why? Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace and goodwill. Yet among God’s creatures, few can match the robin’s thirst for violence against his own kind. Even more distressingly, the bird’s savagery is inspired by nothing worthier than territorial ambition. In pursuit of this ugly cause, robins famously think nothing of killing their own parents. It’s perfectly true that, at some point during the festive season, many young humans feel tempted to act likewise. Almost all of them none the less manage to restrain themselves. Yet we maintain the ruthless robin as our pre-eminent Yuletide symbol.

As it happens, character references were not demanded when the robin won his seasonal status, since the whole thing was no more than a marketing ploy. Like most of our supposedly ancient Christmas trappings, the festive redbreast dates back no further than the 19th century. As readers of Anthony Trollope will recall, people called their postman “Robin” then, because the posties’ uniform was a bright red waistcoat. When cheap colour printing and the penny post gave birth to the Christmas card, the hard-headed Victorians favoured the commercial medium over the spiritual message. On the earliest cards, robins make themselves useful by knocking at doors or carrying envelopes in their beaks.

Perhaps you fell for the winsome legend that the robin earned his role by plucking thorns from the bloodied head of the crucified Christ (reddening his breast in the process). Sorry. That act of mercy was down to the swallow. Your robin ain’t that kind of bird: his penchant for carnage is unfortunately no myth. “One bush does not shelter two robins” was already a proverb in the third century BC. Other birds maintain territory in the breeding season, but the robin is at it all year round. An insistent interloper foolish enough to ignore a fearsome display of threat can expect to be pecked to death through the base of the skull.

That kind of thing may have been OK by our hardbitten grandparents, but ours is a gentler age, or at least it pretends to be. So should the robin now make way for a more politically correct Xmas icon? Hold on. Wanton savagery may be proven beyond doubt, but there are mitigating factors.

Perpetrators of violence are often victims of a cycle of abuse with its roots deep in the past. In the robin’s case, we humans have played our part in brutalising what must now be a tragically damaged species. Murderous annual robin hunts survived into the last century in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. The poor bird’s willingness to become our special friend, fluttering down to greet us in the garden and even hopping into our homes, bespeaks a spirit of reconciliation of which Nelson Mandela might be proud. Wordsworth tells of a robin that came into his sister’s sick-room, fanned her with its wings and sang to her till she recovered. Doesn’t that do it for you? No? All right, it was a long shot. But if the robin’s dark side cannot be wished away, he can still lay claim to impressive progressive credentials.

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The most striking of these is his utter commitment to the feminist cause. Admittedly, this means that a gentleman robin despatches lady intruders on his patch with as much gusto as their male counterparts. But at least there is none of that patronising chivalry nonsense. Nor is equal opportunity in the robin world confined to the right to participate in front-line combat.

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For the most part, avian life is horribly patriarchal. Female birds are not just consigned to full-time fledgling care. They are also stripped of that inalienable right of even the most oppressed human housewife – the chance to dress up and show off. It is male birds, not females, that get the fine feathers; they also, for the most part, hog all the singing and dancing. But not in the case of the robin. Female blackbirds, sparrows and chaffinches may be brown, dowdy and silent, but the robin’s fiery breast is a unisex phenomenon. Even more unusually, the female robin gets to sing just as well and just as persistently as the male. What’s more, she selects her mate, not vice versa. She copulates when she feels like it, not when he does. She builds her nest herself and defends her territory as bloodily as her partner.

If you want to calm those Boxing Day family fights, this crimson-breasted brawler won’t set your household much of an example. However, if you think that, just for once, the menfolk should let the females choose the TV channel, the robin remains the Christmas totem for you.