Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 24: Robin

No surprise in the final bird on the advent calendar. Or at least, no surprise for my British readers; robins probably appear on more Christmas cards here than Jesus.

In fact, the robin is so deeply linked to Christmas that it’s slightly surprising to remember other countries don’t have the same association. Some of them have the excuse that they don’t actually have any robins — and no, Americans, your so called ‘robins’ don’t count — but the same applies to other European countries.

It’s not completely clear where the connection came from. It’s relatively recent, as folklore goes; at most back to the eighteenth century, and it became really well established in the nineteenth, as Christmas cards became popular. One suggestion, according to Birds Britannica, is that Robin was a nickname for Victorian postmen, who had red uniforms; so the birds often appeared on Christmas cards carrying envelopes in their beaks. Or perhaps it’s because they sing through the winter.

Christmas aside, they are very popular birds; they are famously tame around people, hanging around gardeners looking for worms. Apparently they actually evolved this behaviour in association with wild boar, which they would follow through the forest in much the same manner. I guess there are worse things to be than a substitute boar.

Happy Christmas, one and all.


T’is the season

robin on frosty branch

Nature Other

Birding the dictionary

I was watching a dunnock in the garden earlier


and it suddenly occured to me that there might be a parallel between the word ‘dunnock’ and ‘ruddock’ – the old name for a robin.

robin on Flickr

And having got that far, I thought maybe ‘dunnock’ derived from ‘dun cock’ and ‘ruddock’ from ‘ruddy cock’. So I got out the dictionary. Turns out I was part right.

dunnock (‘dʌnək). [app. f. dun a. + -ock dim. suffix; from the dusky brown colour of the plumage. Cf. dunlin.]

In other words, ‘dunnock’ pretty much translates as that classic birder’s term, LBJ — Little Brown Job [btw, while I was looking for dunnock photos on Flickr, I discovered that the Dutch for dunnock is ‘heggemus’ — presumably ‘hedge mouse’. But let’s stick to one language at a time].

The reference to ‘dunlin’ intrigued me.

dunlin on Flickr

And at dunlin I learnt that it’s f. dun a. + -ling. ‘ling’ is a familiar diminutive suffix of course; ‘darling’ and ‘duckling’ are the most obvious examples. But there’s another small sandpiper called a sanderling, and I was curious how that fitted in.

sanderling on Flickr

Well, pleasingly, the OED’s best guess for the origin of sanderling is the Old English sand-yrðling; i.e. ‘sand-earthling’. Not as in ‘take me to your leader’; ‘earthling’ meant ‘ploughman’. Ploughman of the sand.

Getting back to my -ock birds. I looked up ‘ruddock’, and sure enough it says

ruddock (‘rʌdək). [OE rudduc, related to rud sb., ruddy a. : see -ock.]

I also learned that a ruddleman is a digger of, or dealer in, ruddle; a raddleman. But that’s not important right now. Seeing ‘rud’ written as a word helped me make the connection that ‘ruddy’ is cognate with ‘red’. Which probably should have been obvious but I never thought about it. There was one last entry that needed to be checked out. It has such a load of great words in it I’m going to type it out in full.

-ock, suffix, forming diminutives. A few examples of dimin. –oc, –uc, occur in OE., as bealloc ballock, bulluc bullock. In mod. Eng., the chief instance of the dim. suffix is hillock (found already in Wyclif); but other examples occur in the dialects, esp in Sc., e.g. bittock, lassock, queock or queyock, whilock, wyfock, also proper names as Bessock, Jamock, Kittock. Several names of animals, esp. birds and fishes, have the same ending and are prob. orig. diminutive; among these are OE. cranoc, cornoc (dim. of cran), crane; ruddoc (read red) redbreast, ruddock; cf. the modern (some ME.) dunnock, haddock, girrock, paddock, piddock, pinnock, pollock, puttock; also, as names of things, buttock, hattock, tussock. In other words (some of which, as bannock, hassock, mattock, go back to OE.) -ock appears to be of different origin.

The actual word ‘robin’, btw, is from the habit, going back at least as far as the middle ages, of applying personal names to birds: Robin Redbreast, Jack Daw, Mag Pie. ‘Magpie’ is especially apt because ‘mag’ was used to mean ‘chat’, ‘chatterbox’, or ‘to chatter’. ‘Mag’s tales’ were what we would call ‘old wives’ tales’.

NB. The pictures are all from Flickr and © the people who took them; you can click through to the page on Flickr. The dictionary extracts are all from the OED.

Culture Nature

God’s cock and hen

I woke up this morning to see something fluttering against the inside of the window-panes. Without my glasses, I couldn’t think what it was – it seemed too big for a moth and too small and whirring for a bird. It turned out to be a wren. They’re such nice things, but they are slightly unbirdy – like little russet mothmice.

Lucky it wasn’t a robin; I recently learnt from Birds Britannica that if a robin flies into your house it’s a omen of death. I assume that only applies to the European Robin and not its American namesake, but maybe the power of superstition is transferable through the power of names.

The robin and the wren are God’s cock and hen;
The spink and the sparrow are the de’il’s bow and arrow.

The ‘spink’ is the chaffinch. I guess it and the sparrow are damned mostly by rhyme and alliteration. You can find more wren rhymes and folklore here (pdf).