Robin redbreasts are belligerent Christmas bullies
Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
THAT GORGEOUS little critter is a red-capped robin (Petroica goodenovii), one of a handful of red-breasted robins found in Australia. Unlike their European counterparts, which are inextricably linked to white, snowy winters, red-capped robins are creatures of warm, open woodlands.
Due to their fondness for dry, even arid, landscapes, these birds have been able to spread out though most of Australia. The only places they’re absent from are Tasmania, and the country’s northernmost regions, such as Cape York and most of the Kimberley.
Although they look very similar to the European robin (Erithacus rubecula), the red-capped robin and its Australian relatives don’t appear to be related at all – they likely split off from the evolutionary tree very early on.
With their unmistakable red caps, red-capped robins are easily distinguishable from Australia’s other endemic red-breasted robins. There’s the scarlet robin (Petroica boodang), found in the south-west and south-eastern corners of the Australian mainland, as well as throughout Tasmania, and the flame robin (Petroica phoenicea), also found in Australia’s south-east and Tasmania.
Here’s the scarlet robin, showing off the adorable white spot on its forehead:
If you’ve ever wondered how robins (the European robin in particular) became Christmas mascots, it’s an association that runs incredibly deep. Some say it dates back to the pre-Christian era, when robins were revered in folklore and paganism for bringing a cheery presence to the bleakness of winter.
They also have a place in the nativity story. It’s said that when Mary was giving birth to baby Jesus in the stable, she grew concerned that the only fire they had for warmth was flickering out. A little brown bird suddenly appeared, and the flapping of its wings fanned the fire and fuelled the flames. In the process, the little bird was scorched by an ember, giving its breast a red glow – a symbol of the bird’s kind heart.
And then there’s the story told of when Jesus was on the cross, a little bird came to rest on his shoulder to give him company. Blood trickled from Jesus’s brow, pieced by the crown of thorns, and stained the bird’s feathers, giving the robin its red breast.
Far more recently, robin redbreasts have been associated with the Royal Mail postmen. In Victorian England, when the delivery of beautifully decorated Christmas cards and letters were delivered by men in bright red uniforms, they were known affectionately as robins. Robin redbreasts quickly became a symbol of the delivery of Christmas cards, and thus the perfect thing to feature on a Christmas card.
Which is all very noble and lovely, but like any good character in folklore or mythology, there’s always a bit of a dark side.
Robins, whether in Australia, Europe, or elsewhere, can be mean as heck when they want to be. Researchers have caught scarlet robins and flame robins in south-eastern New South Wales being highly aggressive towards each other in fierce territorial disputes.
Red-capped robins in Terrick Terrick National Park in Victoria are known to spar viciously with Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoos (Chrysococcyx basalis), although you can’t really blame them – Australian robins are often tricked into raising the young of cuckoos hat hatch from eggs laid into their nests when they’re not looking.
European robins are also tougher and meaner than they look – British author Philip Hoare famously called them “vicious murdering bullies” due to their ruthless instinct to defend their territory.
But hey, you’ve gotta respect a tiny creature that can hold its own.
Here’s some great footage of Australia’s red-capped robin, flame robin, yellow robin, and scarlet robin in the wild: