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A red-breasted romance

Outdoor Living

DINNER FOR TWO A male robins woos a female with food, and once she lays eggs, continues the courtship feeding throughout the incubation period.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

‘I don’t like it,’ said James. ‘Just look at him there at the window, waiting for the chance to slip in. If there were more in the house I wouldn’t mind as much, but I’m here on my own most of the time. Look at him, he’s watchin’ me.’ He waved his newspaper at the robin and it flew off.
‘You oughtn’t to worry, you know.’ I tried to reassure him. ‘We’ve often had a robin in the house and he’s done no more harm than to leave a little calling card or two.’
‘Then why does he want to come in? He’s been following me around for days, tap, tap tapping at the glass and staring.
“When I’m out of the house he just looks on, and the moment I’m back inside he’s at it again.’
‘You’ve been feeding him.’
‘Well... yes, not him specifically, but I’d throw a few crumbs on a cold afternoon.’
James’s idea of a few crumbs is probably enough to fatten half the robins in the parish. ‘It’s no wonder he likes you, you’ve kept him alive all winter.’
‘Kept him alive? More the fool! Now there he is again, tormenting me. Likes me, you say? You know what it means to have one of them in the house?’
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ I said, ‘that somebody close by will die. It’d take more than a robin to finish you off. You’re hardy as a goat. But look here, there’s two of them now.’
And so there was. They sat facing each other on the sill, one puffing out his chest and the other turning her head this way and that. They were evidently a pair. ‘They’ll be building their nest soon. And then you’ll have an army of them waiting for you.’
James shuddered. ‘If he sets foot inside that door there’ll be a death alright, and it won’t be me. He’ll bring it on himself.’
It was common for our forebears to search for meaning in the natural world. They had time to observe what was happening around them, and learned that many things were more than coincidence. The sudden appearance of flocks of birds would often be followed by worsening weather, and the disappearance of the same early in the year might herald an early spring. A little thought would draw some to the wrong conclusion, that the weather depended on the birds, rather than things working the other way around.
In a similar way rooks reluctant to move far from their nests foretell a poor day ahead, while if they fly early in the morning they will bring better weather. It didn’t occur to most that many birds have an inbuilt barometer that tells them if conditions will permit a long journey or of they ought to remain close to home in the face of an impending storm.
‘So tell me little spideog,’ I asked, using the Irish name, ‘why does he have a red breast?’
As is the case with many, James is reluctant to divulge much in the way of folklore, fearing that others might scorn tales passed down over generations. Some encouragement is needed and this morning it came in the form of strong tea.
I poured it and gave him a prompt. ‘They say he was in purgatory. Did you hear that?’
‘I did,’ he said, ‘and through no fault of his own, but to comfort those being purged of their sin. And the reward for his trouble? His breast was burned by the flames and it’s red to this day.’
‘What do you think? Did it really happen?’
‘Purgatory was always next door to Limbo, and Limbo’s not there at all any more. I guess the whole street’s closed down. No, the robin has a red breast to keep him from being a sparrow. That’s all there is to it.’
‘And yet you wouldn’t let him in the house.’
The two robins fluttered to the ground. One, which I imagine to be the male, found a morsel of food and presented it to the other, holding it in his beak and turning it over and over with his tongue. When his mate came to take it and he teased her by keeping just out of reach, she turned her back and feigned disinterest. He whirred his wings and danced a little, then went after her. They came back to the sill together, where she accepted his gift graciously.
James was quite moved by the affection they showed for one another. ‘Just look at them,’ he said. ‘If I open the window do you think they’d come in? Let’s try.’