A flit of movement catches the corner of my eye as I sit in the back window to write. The bird is the same colour as the bare tree branches, the back fence, the garden table, the floor outdoors: the base colour of winter under a uniform sky that’s trying to rain. Is it…? I wonder, scrabbling for my glasses to get a better look, but even before I put them on I see the flash of its russet frontage. Only a robin after all.
Of course this bird’s not really got a red breast, like most red wildlife the colour is more of a russet brown – red fox, red kite, red squirrel – all of these are nearer to orange than anything else. I used to wonder whether the fruit ‘orange’ was so named because of its colour, or the colour because of the fruit. I assumed the former, because the colour would have been something seen, and presumably labelled, in the English language prior to that somewhat tropical fruit arriving to our shores. The reverse is in fact true. Before oranges, orange the colour was referred to as crog, the colour of saffron, or (in Old English) geolucrog, yellow saffron, and geoluread, yellow red. Since the rusty colour of a fox and a squirrel and an auburn-haired person is more red brown than anything else it was the red that became the identifier. The first record of the word orange being used to describe the colour orange in English was in1512. This word came, unsurprisingly, from the French, orenge, which in turn came from the Arabic and Sanskrit naranj and naranga: familiar in the modern day term for the fruit in Spanish.
I wonder how much that splash of colour in the plumage is responsible for the robin’s popularity? In the 1960s the bird was voted in as England’s national bird, and you can see why: it is not only attractive but easily recognisable and easily stylisable. How many approximations of a bird do you see in Christmas graphic design bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real thing excepting a bright red (not even a robin red) blob on its front, yet we all know what it’s meant to be. Robins first became associated with Christmas in Victorian times when the posties of the day wore red uniforms and were known as ‘robins’, with the birds making their way onto the cards themselves as an analogy of the postman delivering the card. Robins are often attributed ‘human’ characteristics of bravery and friendliness, although they are demonstrably territorial and vicious opportunists, whose ‘friendliness’ towards humans is more often than not an attempt at being the earliest bird on the scene when our gardening activities might turn up a tasty worm or two.
A blackbird – female, also ground coloured – rummages around the patio outside the window where some tree trimmings are stacked messily on the slabs. I can hear further twittering and look more closely at the buddleia to see a bunch of sparrows amidst the tangle of twigs, who would be invisible brown on brown, like many garden birds, but for their chatter and busy flitters of movement.
And then she appears. On the table, then the ground, then up on the fence near the wall of the house so I can really see her well, though not quite as well as when I spotted her for the first time this year last Monday, sitting on the boiler pipe flicking her tail. She’s a female black redstart, almost exactly like a robin in shape and size and colour excepting the russet orange has been transposed from breast to tail.
I read from Tim Dee that Aristotle thought that the summer redstarts of Greece turned into its winter robins. I see one every year in my garden in January – just the female, and only ever one, or one at a time, I’ve no idea if it’s a single specimen I’m seeing again and again or different ones singly. Maybe she’s the same one from year to year, wintering here before going elsewhere to breed. Between 19 and 44 pairs of black redstarts breed in the UK each year according to the RSPB, mostly around London and the Midlands, with around 400 birds overwintering mainly along the south coast. Spring and autumn migrants are much more numerous, birds making their way south for the winter and vice versa. She’s certainly not rare, but unusual enough a sight for a relative ‘non-birder’ such as myself to be a little treat in what can be a dull time of year. She flicks and flicks as I watch her – a quick twitch of wing flashing that rusty tail from the garage roof, starting in the sense of startling – a quick surprise of russet, russet with each wing flex. Colour, colour, in my brown winter.
picture credits: Wayne P Bull (black redstart) and Francis J Taylor (robin) – click images for links robin Christmas cards (ornithologically correct if somewhat stylised!) – author’s own
This weekend 24th and 25th January is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. All you need to do is spend one hour recording what birds and how many you see in your garden, fill in the survey online at https://www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/how-to-take-part/ and you’ll be contributing to the world’s largest wildlife survey. With any luck I’ll be able to record Mrs Black Redstart along with the usual seagulls and sparrows, but even recording the absence of birds in your garden is important information for ongoing records of our fluctuating avian populations and distributions.
You may also like on Open the Curtains:
Walking Brown: how the muddy monochrome of winter can be revitalising and rejuvenating once you adjust your eye to the detail of the multitude of browns on a winter walk.