Mr Robin is back

I’m no ornithologist, but I kind of suspect that the crowds of finches that gathered around the bird feeding pad, along with assorted jackdaws, collared doves, the blackbird family, and Earnest the pea cock shaking his tail feathers, might have been too much for Mr. Robin. For whatever the reason though, he certainly hasn’t been in evidence throughout the summer, so it was remarkable to see him yesterday, looking around the territory again.

Or, was it really again? Might the ‘original’ robin have died, leaving the territory open for a new male to take over? That scenario certainly seems possible, and if so, he’s got a lovely place in which to court any number of likely partners. I imagine he’ll stay. If so, he can help me in my Sunday soliloquy.

Robins, along with the goldfinch, both splotched over head and/or chest with bright red/orange feathers, were incorporated into Renaissance art iconography, following the apochryphal legend that they plucked a thorn from Christ’s crown, or forehead, during his long march to the cross, encountering a drop of his blood in the process. So they were apparently considered to be very holy birds, or, at least, used as icons to signify holiness. Try telling that to fierce Mr Robin these days, as we know full well he’ll chase any intruders away, or fight to the death trying. Singularly holy then?

But he seems cheerful, even if he’s among the most aggressive of birds. It’s easy to go over the top in the anthropomorphic ascriptions of human characteristics to animals; recent reviews of BBC One’s ‘Serengeti’ are scathing in their assessment that the commentary is far too twee — even, dare we say it, Disney-fied. Sir David Attenborough would never allow himself to be so debauched in his descriptions of animal behaviour; let’s have some respect for actual animal sensibility, after all! I’ve known farmers who loved their stock, but they’d only be bemused if visiting townies gave them human characteristics. Animals is animals.

But what if, like the stories we use to lie to our children at Christmas, building up the anticipation until the night Santa Claus clambers down the chimney and leaves his pile of presents . . . what if both the story-teller and recipient actually know that the story is a human artifice, like a fairy tale? Surely the act of the story-telling is an artistic pursuit that we all collude in, much like the common person during the Renaissance would understand that a robin plucking one of Christ’s thorns was only signifying Jesus’ holiness, in which everyone truly believed. Or much like Aesop’s fables, so-called ‘fictions that point to the truth,’ stories giving human characteristics to well-known animals can create a moral landscape for humans to inhabit.

So I might yet make up a story about fierce Mr Robin, for the grandsons, zealously guarding his territory, driving off any lesser males, and in so doing give him his own natural voice, while throwing in a little human admonition about, say, the loneliness of such an aggressive pursuit, if we embarked on such behaviour ourselves. Couched in the best phraseology, we might both understand that by the end of the story we’ve moved from the world of the robin into our own social sphere.

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