Book review: The Robin - A Biography, by Stephen Moss

Robins are the second most abundant birds in the UK after wrens, with roughly six million pairs, and at this time of the year they feel even more ubiquitous than usual, popping up on what must be at least one Christmas card out of every three. As Stephen Moss explains in this thoughtful mash-up of natural and cultural history, the birds first started finding their way on to cards in the 1840s. In this period postmen wore bright red uniforms and were nicknamed 'Robins', and some of the earliest designs for greetings cards showed postmen arriving to deliver the mail. 'It was a short step,' writes Moss, 'to swap the postman in his red uniform for an actual robin, which was often depicted holding the card in its beak.'

The robin - an aggressive, highly territorial bird that doesnt tend to travel very far from its home turf
The robin - an aggressive, highly territorial bird that doesnt tend to travel very far from its home turf

But it’s not just via Christmas cards that robins have worked their way into our collective imagination. If there’s one thing this book makes clear it’s that the British have lived alongside robins for so long that they have become deeply ingrained in our culture; nobody fell off their chair with shock when the robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird in 1960, or when it happened again in 2015.

Moss divides his book into the months of the year, describing how robin behaviour changes with the seasons, but at the same time as talking us through the life cycle of what he calls “the real, biological robin” he also attempts to explore “the cultural and historical ‘robin’”. The two are interconnected, so this approach makes a sense. However, by flitting constantly between these parallel narratives, it is perhaps inevitable that the book can feel a little rudderless at times – not rambling, exactly, but lacking in momentum.

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That said, this is still a very readable overview of the life of the “real” robin, taking in key behavioural discoveries made by naturalists such as David Lack, as well as a treasure trove of robin-related lore. There are stories of unusual nesting sites (a hole in the mast of HMS Victory made by a cannon ball; inside the engine of a Second World War aircraft which flew regular sorties complete with nest and eggs) and of some unlikely robin-lovers, too, notably Sir Edward Grey, foreign secretary from 1905 to 1916, who managed to tame the birds around his homes in Hampshire and Northumberland to the extent that they would perch on his hat.

All of which is very endearing. Given some of the robin’s natural characteristics, however – it is an aggressive, highly territorial bird that doesn’t tend to travel very far from its home turf – perhaps we should be wary of identifying with it too closely.

The Robin: A Biography, by Stephen Moss, Square Peg, £10.99