A remarkable woman, Little Egrets and birth of the RSPB

Our birdwatching has been limited this year, as a result of the Covid restrictions and our continuing caution in the face of this frightening pandemic. We’ve seen no rarities during our occasional birding forays, but one bird we have been pleased to meet up with is the Little Egret. When we started birdwatching over three decades ago these elegant members of the heron family were almost entirely absent from the UK, but they can now routinely be seen in many parts of the country. Their return is a conservation success story.

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Little Egrets were once present here in large numbers, but were wiped out by mankind’s greed. In 1465, for example, 1,000 egrets were served up at a banquet held to celebrate the enthronement of a new Archbishop of York. A century later they were becoming scarce and by the 19th century they’d all but disappeared.

Egrets in continental Europe fared little better, although here it was fashion rather than food that drove the decline. They had been a major component of the plume trade since at least the 17th century, but in the 19th century demand exploded for feathers, and other bird parts, to decorate the hats of wealthy upper- and middle-class women. We know, for example, that in the first three months of 1885, 750,000 egret skins were sold in London, while in 1887 one London dealer sold 2 million egret skins.

Seen from a modern perspective the wanton slaughter of any species to feed the vanity of shallow fashionistas is appalling. Fortunately, however, it also appalled some of the women at whom the plume trade was notionally directed, initiating a chain of events that led to the formation of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Today the RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity.

One of the women determined to stop the slaughter was Emily Williamson (1855-1936). At first she appealed to the all-male British Ornithologists’ Union to take a stand, but when they ignored her letters she realised this was a problem that women themselves could solve.

In 1889 Emily invited a group of like-minded women to her home in Didsbury on the outskirts of Manchester, to discuss how to the stop the vile plumage trade. The meeting established the Plumage League. Its rules were simple, and to the point:

  • ‘That members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection.’
  •  ‘That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for the purposes of food.

Two years later, in 1891, the Plumage League joined forces with the Fur and Feather League. This was also an all-female group and had been set up in the south of England by Eliza Phillips (1823-1916), who shared Emily’s values and aspirations.

Their new organisation was called the Society for the Protection Birds. Led by Emily Williamson, Eliza Phillips and Etta Lemon (1860-1953), and with the Duchess of Portland Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck (1863-1954) as president, the Society grew rapidly. By 1893 it boasted 10,000 members. In 1904, just 13 years after it was founded, the Society received a Royal Charter from Edward VII, making it the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

One hundred years ago, on 1 July 1921, after nearly 30 years of campaigning by the Society, Parliament finally passed the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act. The Act banned the importation of exotic feathers, and thereby helped save many species from extinction.

Since then the RSPB has gone from strength to strength, campaigning to protect habitats and species both in the UK and across the globe. The RSPB’s nature reserves are also a valued resource for British birdwatchers, and Mrs P and I are proud supporters (Life Fellows, in fact) of this brilliant conservation organisation.

From small acorns do might oak trees grow, and Emily Williamson can never have imagined that her humble initiative in a Manchester suburb would have such profound consequences. She and her fellow founders of the Society were remarkable individuals, all the more so when we reflect on the degree to which women were marginalised in Victorian society.

Thankfully, Emily Williamson is finally starting to receive the recognition she deserves. In April 2023 a statue of Emily will be unveiled in Didsbury’s Fletcher Moss Park, close to her former home.

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Needless to say, Emily Williamson was not at the forefront of our minds when we spotted our Little Egrets a few weeks ago. I’m sure, however, that she would have been thrilled to see them back in the UK and fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.

Little Egrets first returned to the UK in significant numbers in 1989. They arrived here naturally, following an expansion of their range into western and northern France during the previous decades. They first bred in 1996, in Dorset, and continue to thrive. There are now thought to be around 700 breeding pairs in the UK, while the over-wintering population is around 4,500 birds.

Little Egrets are handsome birds, and a welcome addition to any wetland habitat. It’s great to have them back here, where they belong.

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Postscript: This essay on The History Press website provides further details on women’s role in the foundation of the RSPB

Celebrating National Robin Day

The good folk at SongBird Survival (SBS), an independent charity which funds research into the declining numbers of Britain’s songbirds, have declared next Monday – 21 December – to be National Robin Day. And who can blame them? The instantly recognisable robin has an appeal that extends way beyond dedicated birders, so celebrating this bird table superstar is an inspired way of gaining more publicity for their worthy cause. To mark the day, I thought I’d share some random facts and folklore about this iconic bird.

1 Robins are British Christmas card icons

It’s no accident that the SBS chose mid-December as the best time to celebrate National Robin Day. In Britain robins have been associated with Christmas since the 19th century, when postmen were dubbed robin redbreasts because of their red tunics. The mail they delivered at Christmas brought happiness to householders across the country, and the link was quickly made between redbreasts and seasonal merriment. Robins soon started appearing on Christmas cards, and they’ve been there ever since.

Worthy of a Christmas card

2 The naming of robins

The original English name for the robin was purely descriptive: our ancestors called it the redbreast. But they got it wrong. Even a cursory inspection in good light will reveal the bird’s breast to be orange, or perhaps an orangey-red, rather than pure red. The word orange, describing a colour, was unknown in English until the 16th century when it appeared as the name of the now-familiar citrus fruit. But by this time earlier generations had already adopted the next most appropriate word in the language – red – to describe the colour of the robin’s signature plumage.

The word robin, when applied to the bird, emerged in the 15th century when it became popular to give human names to familiar species. This new practice resulted in the birds becoming known as robin redbreast, which was eventually shortened to robin

3 The robin is Britain’s unofficial National Bird

In the 1960s the Times newspaper organised a poll of its readers to find Britain’s most popular bird, and the robin came out on top. Around half a century later, in 2015, popular birdwatcher and author David Lindo organised a similar survey. Over 200,000 people took part and the robin won again, having received 34% of votes cast, ahead of the barn owl (12%) and the blackbird (11%). Despite these public votes the UK government has remained on the fence and, for now at least, officially we don’t have a National Bird. Unofficially, however, the robin clearly takes the title.

Britain’s unofficial National Bird sings out, warning others to keep clear of its territory

4 Robins are nestbuilding mavericks

When it comes to choosing a place to nest, robins aren’t fussy. Just about anywhere will do. Most commonly their nests can be found about two metres off the ground, within some kind of hollow or crevice and sheltered by vegetation. But others will nest on the ground, perhaps behind the overhang of a grassy tussock, or occasionally beneath fallen twigs covered by leaf litter.

However, radical freethinkers within the robin population choose to nest amongst the flotsam and jetsam of human life. Old teapots, discarded kettles, watering cans, coat pockets, wellington boots, farm machinery, flowerpots, hats, barbecues, an unmade bed and the body of a dead cat have all been selected by robins as a suitable place to bring up a family!

Although their nestbuilding strategy may seem bizarre, it delivers the goods. There are estimated to be 6,700,000 breeding territories in the UK. Since 1970 the robin population has increased by around 45 per cent.

5 Male and female robins both have vivid breast plumage

Robins are highly territorial, and – particularly in the breeding season – adult males like to show off their vividly coloured breasts in an attempt to intimidate other males. Although females are less competitive, they too have orangey-red breasts. The two sexes look very similar, and their brightly coloured breast plumage got them into trouble towards the end of the 19th century when robin skins were for a time a popular adornment for ladies’ hats.

It’s worth noting that juvenile robins have a speckled brown breast and don’t develop the species’ distinctive plumage until after their first moult. The youngsters therefore belong to the group that is the nemesis of birders everywhere: they are Little Brown Jobs.

Juvenile robin (aka a Little Brown Job)

6 Robins sometimes fight to the death

You wouldn’t think it to look at them, but robins are aggressive little birds prone to acts of violence. It’s all about territory. It begins with a singing contest, males belting out their songs at one another while trying to get to a higher perch from which to flaunt their brightly coloured breasts. If one or the other doesn’t back down the dispute can become physical, resulting in injuries and even – on occasion – the death of one of the combatants. Shockingly, in some populations, up to 10 per cent of adult mortality is due to these avian turf wars.

7 Robins, friends to gardeners everywhere

Putting aside the connection with Christmas festivities, another reason for the robin’s popularity is its confiding nature. The robin presents as a friendly, trusting bird, more so than any other species that regularly visits British gardens.

Gardeners in particular often get up close and personal with robins. As ground feeders, robins enjoy nothing more than cheekily scavenging earthworms and other invertebrates dug up by gardeners going about their business. They’re also regular visitors to bird tables during the winter months, feisty feeders that aren’t shy about claiming their share of the feast.

Interestingly, robins are less confiding on continental Europe. This is thought to be because in many parts of the continent, particularly in the southern part of the robin’s range, the locals have the detestable habit of hunting small birds. It therefore pays the robin to keep its head down, skulking in the undergrowth, where hunters are less likely to find them. In Britain, where this horrible hunting tradition doesn’t exist, there is no evolutionary incentive for such caution.

The robin is a regular visitor to British bird tables

8 How the robin became

Unsurprisingly for a bird that associates so closely with humans, many stories have grown up to explain the robin’s distinctive colouring. One legend says that when Jesus was dying on the cross, a robin flew to his side and sang into his ear in order to comfort him. At this point the robin’s plumage was a dull, unremarkable brown colour. However the blood from Jesus’ wounds stained the robin’s breast. In that moment the world welcomed its first robin redbreast, and from that day onwards all robins bore the mark of Christ’s blood.

An alternative version of this tale tells us that one day an ordinary brown bird was flying high over Golgotha, near Jerusalem, when it looked at the ground below and spotted Christ suffering on the cross. Determined to ease Jesus’ torment it flew down and tried to remove His crown of thorns, but as it tugged in vain at the cruel affliction some of the Lord’s blood stained its breast. And this was how the robin became.

A third robin creation myth also makes a link between Jesus and the robin’s colouration. According to this story, shortly after Mary had given birth in the Bethlehem stable a small brown bird appeared and – in a noble attempt to keep the Christ Child warm – started to fan the flames of the dying fire. However, embers from the fire scorched its chest feathers, leaving the bird red-breasted. Mary saw what had happened and declared that the red breast was a sign of the bird’s devotion to the Lord. She went on to promise that the bird and all its descendants would forever onwards wear a red breast in memory of this selfless act of love.

9 Q: When is a robin not a robin? A: When it’s an American robin

The species of robin seen in British gardens is found all over Europe, extending as far east as Western Siberia and south to North Africa. Robins are also found in North America…or are they? Well, no, actually they’re not. The American Robin isn’t really a robin at all, and belongs instead to the thrush family. Early European settlers in the Americas, desperate for reminders of home, noticed its reddish coloured breast and named it after the bird they knew from back home. Ornithology plainly wasn’t their strong point as, other than the colour of the breast, the two species bear little resemblance.

Interestingly, in the 1964 movie Mary Poppins starring Julie Andrews, the director got the wrong bird. Despite Dick van Dyke’s laughable attempt at a London accent, Mary Poppins is clearly set in England. However the bird that lands on Mary’s finger during the song A Spoonful of Sugar is an American Robin rather a European robin. Why am I not surprised by Hollywood’s cavalier relationship with factual accuracy?

The American Robin…is not really a robin at all!

10 Who killed cock robin?

The robin appears in the well-known English nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin?, a gruesome tale describing the murder and the funeral of a robin. The unfortunate redbreast is shot by a sparrow, and subsequent verses reveal who organises his funeral, who digs his grave and who plays the role of chief mourner. The person who concluded that such a verse constitutes suitable entertainment for children was clearly in need of therapy.

The nursery rhyme first appeared in print in 1744, in a volume entitled Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book. However the story appears already to have been an established part of England’s oral tradition. A stained glass window dating from the 15th century and showing a robin killed by an arrow can be seen Buckland Rectory (Gloucestershire), while in the early 1500s John Skelton wrote and published a similar story called “Phyllyp Sparowe.”

There are now multiple versions of the nursery rhyme, some of which have been put to music. My favourite is by the American folk-singing duo Dana and Susan Robinson. They are brilliant performers – we’ve seen them perform on a couple of occasions in the UK – and for us Who Killed Cock Robin? is always the highlight of their gigs.

So, dear reader, as you reach the end of this little post, please join me in celebrating our National Robin Day by listening to Dana and Sue’s rendition of the tragic tale of one robin’s untimely end, courtesy of the YouTube link below.