Country diary: there's nothing sentimental about the robin's song

Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: The ‘pious’ redbreast is a creature of propaganda. There is no compassion in its call

“I am the Lord of Misrule,” sang the robin, high on testosterone and his breast ablaze with sunlight. In fact, I cannot be certain that the robin I see singing is male or female. Both look alike to me and both sing. Male songs have been described as more complex, and it’s certain that male and female robins know the sex of the singer from their song. The quality of robin song changes with the seasons and it is suggested that the addition of sexual signals in male song is influenced by higher levels of testosterone in spring than the year-round singing for the defence of the realm in winter. It also appears that the seasonal migrations of robins are influenced by sexual divisions into types of habitat, with dominant males securing the best woodland places.

It’s not just the worms that feed the singer – how much of the spirit of place feeds the song? An 18th-century talent competition for birdsong gave marks out of 20 for being “melodious of tone”, “sprightliness”, “plaintiveness”, “compassion” and “execution”. This one would score zero for compassion, and is anyway indifferent to such human attributes. “The pious bird with the scarlet breast” is a creature of propaganda.

Where have you come from, Erithacus rubecula? In the darker reaches of the wood, as in the medieval imagination, you were more or less sacred. Even in Victorian times when you came to “call”, tapping on the window, you terrified the hypochondriacs. Now, singing louder at night to compensate for the growling ambient noise of human life, and burdened with “cuteness”, your call is greeted with patronising sentimentality.

A sacrificial king, ruling over a feast of fools, demanding tribute, declaring war or love, singing an intoxicated joy for the greenwood’s merry disports and a defiance of the weather’s cruelties, few things are as reliable as you. Perhaps one day, as the old stories say, you will bury us under moss in the woods. You are the Lord of Misrule, here to disrupt and confound our presumptions and not give a toss because you have many lives to live and this, as you say, is now spring.


Paul Evans

The GuardianTramp

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