Monday, October 20, 2014

The Return of the Robin

Who killed Cock Robin?

     Who killed Cock Robin?
        I, said the Sparrow,
        with my bow and arrow,
        I killed Cock Robin.

        Who saw him die?
        I, said the Fly,
        with my little eye,
        I saw him die.

        Who caught his blood?
        I, said the Fish,
        with my little dish,
        I caught his blood.

        Who'll make the shroud?
        I, said the Beetle,
        with my thread and needle,
        I'll make the shroud.

        Who'll dig his grave?
        I, said the Owl,
        with my little trowel,
        I'll dig his grave.

        Who'll be the parson?
        I, said the Rook,
        with my little book,
        I'll be the parson.

        Who'll be the clerk?
        I, said the Lark,
        if it's not in the dark,
        I'll be the clerk.

        Who'll carry the link?
        I, said the Linnet,
        I'll fetch it in a minute,
        I'll carry the link.

        Who'll be chief mourner?
        I, said the Dove,
        I mourn for my love,
        I'll be chief mourner.

        Who'll carry the coffin?
        I, said the Kite,
        if it's not through the night,
        I'll carry the coffin.

        Who'll bear the pall?
        We, said the Wren,
        both the cock and the hen,
        We'll bear the pall.

        Who'll sing a psalm?
        I, said the Thrush,
        as she sat on a bush,
        I'll sing a psalm.

        Who'll toll the bell?
        I said the Bull,
        I am strong, I can pull,
        I'll toll the bell.

        All the birds of the air
        fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
        when they heard the bell toll
        for poor Cock Robin.

The first robin redbreast of the cold season appeared yesterday in our garden and the lines of this old rhyme came to mind. 

An investigation of the robin's habits may reveal the answer to the question 'Who killed Cock Robin?' and prove once and for all that the sparrow may be guilty of nothing more than false confession.

But first, some background. Robin redbreast it turns out, is a generic name for several species which are not related but which happen to resemble one another.

The European Robin Erithacus rubecula is a passerine bird in the flycatcher family. The Australian and American species were called robins because they reminded colonists of the British bird. The American Robin, Turdus migratorius, is from the thrush family and the Australian Robins (Scarlet, Petroica multicolor; Red-capped, Petroica goodenovii; and Flame, Petroica phoenicea) are from the Petroicidae family of Australasia.

Naturally I wish to discuss the European Robin which is an insect-eating chat or Old World flycatcher. Male and female both have the orange-red breast and face and both sing similar songs although other characteristics distinguish them from one another.

I read that the robin is sedentary but this is the first one I have seen since last winter, so perhaps it took a holiday over the summer; it could even be a British robin wintering here as my source says that 'a small minority, usually female, migrate to southern Europe during winter'. Sensible ladies.

A relatively bold and confident bird, it will approach humans and wild animals such as boar on the lookout for worms or other food unearthed by their digging.
Although the robin's counterparts in Italy are more diffident, no doubt with reason (see post on hunting). Apart from worms, spiders and insects, the robin will eat berries and seeds in autumn.

Robins are rather lackadaisical in their choice of nest location, using holes, cracks, ivy-covered walls even man-made items such as watering cans, pots and broom bristles. They gather moss, leaves and grass and line the nest with feathers and hair, laying five eggs two or three times in the season. Juveniles are mottled brown and it takes some months for them to acquire the orange-red colouring.

The robin's song is warbling and trilling and can be confused with that of the nightingale when it sings at night.

There is much folklore associated with this tiny bird but the link with Christmas and Christmas cards is quite recent. 

the story goes that Victorian postmen were dubbed robins; when this card appeared in the 1860s the birds became associated with Christmas and cards...ever after

Old tales explain the red breast of the robin through Christian imagery predictably associated with blood or, more imaginatively, recounting that the robin scorched its breast in the cleansing fires of Purgatory when it took drops of water to alleviate the thirst of the tormented souls. In Wales it is called breast-burnt, brou-rhuddyn.  

Perhaps it is thanks to these myths that people in Britain have traditionally not killed the robin, nor stolen its eggs.

An important and perhaps surprising characteristic of males is that they are often very territorial and aggressive. They will attack and can kill other males and birds of other species, even unprovoked.

Thus, to return to the question who killed cock robin, the reply is almost certainly: cock robin. The voluntary confessor, the sparrow, presumably has serious issues with guilt. And the fly is withholding testimony.

Postilla: And yet, and yet, the culprit today may be another, if this article from the Guardian is anything to go by. Note that continental European hunters are partly to blame.

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