That fierce neighbouring cat, which has killed or scared off our mice, has not yet destroyed our robin. Cats do not enjoy eating robins. If they do so by mistake, they vomit. But that does not stop them attacking the birds for sport. We think of robins as very tame, and they are — in England. In the past we killed them for various purposes. In the 17th century robins (and sparrows) were eaten to break up kidney stones, for which a surgical operation, in those days, was dangerous if not impossible. If the surgeon was not swift and skilful enough to get the stone out within 20 minutes, the pain was so intense that the patient died on the table. People justified eating robins accordingly. They were also consumed ‘to loosen Children’s Bellies and to carry off acrophilous Humors’. This killing of robins stopped here early in the 19th century, in that same wave of sentiment which led the English to ban the slave trade and enact the first laws against cruelty to animals. But Continentals continued to trap and gorge these harmless birds, especially in those haunts of haute cuisine — Burgundy, Champagne and Lorraine. The great Victorian naturalist Charles Waterton noted with disgust that hundreds of robins were for sale in the Rome markets ‘under the noses of the cardinals who have a similar livery’. When I used to go for long tramps in Normandy and Poitou in the 1950s, I was still offered dishes of small birds, including robins, in local bistros. So it’s not surprising the tameness of robins stops at the Channel. Across it they are still secretive.

But if English robins are tame, they are not exactly friendly and can never be made into pets, like geese or parrots or ravens, or even magpies. They will hop into your hand if you are patient enough and it is easy to ring them, as any ornithologist knows, but their willingness to have dealings with humans is utilitar-ian, not sentimental. So we never discovered who killed Cock Robin. One man who knew all about robins was Sir Edward Grey, foreign secretary 1905–16 and ennobled as Viscount Grey of Fallodon. He said he had tamed hundreds for ringing but never made one a friend. There is a famous photo of him with a robin perched on top of his deerstalker hat. The beaky-nosed Northumbrian Grey was an old-fashioned English gent with all the contradictions of that almost extinct species. He spent the leisure hours of a long life killing fish and protecting birds. Both his books on the subjects, Fly Fishing and The Charm of Birds, are still worth reading. At Balliol, despite the warnings of Benjamin Jowett, he did no work and was sent down for ‘incorrigible idleness’. In due course he became chancellor of Oxford University. He loathed ‘abroad’ and never spoke a word of a foreign language. But he entangled us with France and got us involved in the first world war, the greatest catastrophe in English history, from which all our modern troubles have sprung. Those who study robins think they are accident-prone. So was Grey. He had poor eyesight and his numb imperviousness to disaster in July 1914 was coloured by desperate attempts to give up smoking, which he was told was bad for his eyes. But he went blind all the same. His first wife was killed in a carriage-smash. His second died suddenly, for no reason, and he himself died childless. One of his brothers was trampled to death by a buffalo. Another was torn to pieces by a lion. Both his houses were burnt to the ground. Perhaps he suffered from a death wish. Two years before the war in which he fatally involved us, he wrote that ‘the great industrial countries will perish in catastrophe, because they have made the country hideous and life impossible’. His passionate love of birds was accompanied by a distrust verging on contempt for the human race. He was, in short, an adumbration of the modern Green fanatic and doomsayer.

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Still, Grey’s memory is preserved not by his peerage which (naturally) became extinct, but by the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology at Oxford. Its great director was David Lack, FRS, who during the last war wrote The Life of the Robin, which is the best book on the subject. It came out in Penguin in 1943. Lack also compiled an anthology of passages about robins in English verse and prose called Robin Redbreast.

According to Lack, there is only one disparaging reference to robins in the whole of English literature. This occurs in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), where he has Christiana say: ‘I like him worse than I did’ because she saw ‘a little robin with a great spider in his mouth’. She had hitherto thought robins ‘lived on crumbs of bread, and upon such other harmless matter’. Bunyan adds: ‘They can drink Iniquity, and swallow down Sin like water.’ But there was nothing new in Bunyan’s discovery: Aristotle noted two millennia before that they ate worms. Indeed the robin, which is the first garden bird to rise and begin the dawn chorus, is almost certainly the origin of the saying, ‘The early bird gets the worm’. Wordsworth was upset because he thought they ate butterflies. Of course they eat caterpillars but Lack, who spent years ringing and observing robins, says they do not eat butterflies. (Butter, yes: they love it, though they turn down margarine flat.) Their principal diet is small fruit, seeds and almost any insect. Many gardeners believe that robins eat ‘bad’ insects and leave ‘good’ ones alone, a belief which adds to the popularity of the bird. One expert analysed the contents of the stomachs of 14 dead birds and concluded that, of the insects it ate, 43.5 per cent were beneficial to mankind, 48.5 per cent were neutral, and 8 per cent injurious to man. But Lack, though he quotes these findings in his book, dismisses them, and thinks the case cannot be proved either way.

What Lack stresses (and Grey agreed with him) is that robins are not gregarious birds. Apart from taking a mate, they are solitaries. They are aggressive, too. They are tenacious and furious defenders of their chosen terri-tory, especially against other robins. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin reported a case in which a robin attacked all the birds in an aviary which had any red in their plumage, although it left all other birds alone. It actually killed a red-breasted crossbill and nearly killed a goldfinch.

This aggressive behaviour is related to the time of year (as with humans). Robins are least aggressive between the middle of June and the end of July, which of course is when human wars tend to start. The fact that robins do not sing during these peaceful months confirms the finding that the singing of a male robin (the hens sing much less) is primarily a war cry. The robin sings just before it attacks, and during the fight. We humans are a bit sentimental about robins. But their song is certainly good. Some rate it as highly as the nightingale, which I never hear in London nowadays. In my garden I put it just behind the singing thrushes, and ahead of the blackbirds. It is a brave, hardy bird and will happily take a bath even in the coldest weather. It loves snow — hence the endless Christmas cards of robins — but often dies of cold. Probably the commonest cause of a robin’s death is starvation, so always put out crumbs for the hungry creatures. I like and admire our robin, and intend to protect him from the terrifying cat.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated