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19 october 2022

Americans of course know robins, but being American, I don't remember ever seeing the star of Helen Wilson's new book for the Reaktion Animal series, Robin. Her focus is Erithacus rubecula, the European robin, a friendly little orange-bellied ball of feathers that looks only vaguely like our tall, russet Turdus migratorius. I probably have seen robins in Europe, where they are very common; I just haven't been paying attention. In future I will.

American poet Witter Bynner wrote a charming poem called "The Robin" in which, again like me, he mentions never having encountered various birds that feature in English poems: the nightingale, the cuckoo, the lark. "But I have felt a pulse-beat start," says Bynner, "Because a robin … Has found an answer in my heart, / A sudden comprehending." But the robin he heard would have been equally unfamiliar to English poets as the nightingale to him.

European robins, especially beloved in English traditions, are characterized, Wilson says, by their boldness, their willingness to approach humans, their fierce territoriality, their song, and their association with the seasons – though as they tend to be resident across Europe, and various populations migrate only to be replaced by others, robins mean to English people both springtime and winter.

English people sometimes befriend individual robins, who build nests near, even in their homes, and eat from their hands. This can go on for many seasons, though the utmost of a robin's life, according to 20th-century ornithologist David Lack, is about six years. Once when Lack gave a talk about robins to a bird club, a woman "insisted that she had been feeding the same robin in her garden for the last seventeen years," and when Lack was skeptical, "she began to hit him over the head with her umbrella" (72). Folks get serious about their robins.

Wilson ranges delightfully over some other robin lore that would not have occurred to me even to look for. She examines robins on postage stamps and cigarette cards, in advertising of all kinds. Batman's sidekick appears; as does the robin in The Secret Garden, and a real-life robin that Frances Hodgson Burnett called Tweetie (109); so does Mary Poppins, who in her first movie incarnation praised "the robin feathering her nest" for chipper attitude, and became associated with robins ever after. Sports teams take the name "Robins," at least in England, where apparently five English football clubs are so called (126-27). Oddly enough, no American teams in any sport that I can locate are called Robins, and not because they're not big or scary enough; baseball is populated with Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Orioles. The Brooklyn Dodgers were briefly called the Robins, early in the 20th century, but only coincidentally with the bird: their beloved manager was named Wilbert Robinson, and they were nicknamed after him.

The robin is archetypal for the return of spring, but is also the standard English Christmas bird, playing a role there that cardinals play in the U.S. Just as the robin can mean both spring and winter, it can mean vitality or death. In English culture, the robin is the hero of the traditional "babes in the wood" story, where two unfortunates die in a forest and lie uncovered till a robin takes it upon himself to perform their obsequies. The other great folkloric English bird is Cock Robin, famous for being despatched by an arrow. Dead robins, says Wilson, used to appear on Victorian greeting cards. The past is a foreign country.

For that matter, England is a foreign country, to me, and a parallel Robin about the American bird might be needed. Robins migrate through Texas, so I see them in passing now, as compared to my youth in the Midwest and Northeast where I saw them as summer residents (and where some winter over). But robins still loom large in my imagination.

And in American imaginations, the robin can be ambiguous. Wilson cites upbeat American songs like "Rockin' Robin" and "When the Red Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along)" – but remember that the latter was deployed with devastating eeriness in Francis Ford Coppola's film The Conversation. Even happy robin songs can't stay happy, it seems.

Of all American poets, Emily Dickinson invoked the robin most consistently. Mostly, it's a conventionally rosy image. A small pink flower shares intimacy in "every human soul" with a robin. Dickinson writes of wanting to "help one fainting robin / Unto his nest again," oh, help us, the reader is thinking. Her most protracted treatment of the robin ends with claiming that the bird "Submits that home and certainty / And sanctity are best." I wonder if Dickinson's bird who jauntily "came down the walk" and "bit an Angle-worm in half" is a robin; he sounds like one.

But for all that banality, Dickinson's most powerful use of a robin is in the poem that begins

I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I'm some accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though –
The poem explores the phenomenon of being depressed while everyone around you is happily reawakening. It is so powerful and so counter-intuitive that not a season goes by when I don't see the first robin and repeat Dickinson's words to myself, or anyone within earshot. Robins to me have become synonymous with dread. But thanks to Helen Wilson, also synonymous with dozens of other contradictory but largely positive associations.

Wilson, Helen F. Robin. London: Reaktion, 2022.