There is an inevitability about the way in which the summer season is beginning to decline ... at times it seems, with indecent haste, especially when fronts born of the remnants of a distant hurricane named Gerty came speeding in from the Atlantic at the beginning of this week to cast something of a wet blanket over the waning summer! Nights too are perceptibly drawing in and some leaves are even now beginning to lose their green hue and are slowly taking on a distinctly bronze tinge. Autumn it seems is clearly waiting eagerly in the wings, ready to burnish our landscape sooner rather than later and produce that blazingly colourful finale before many trees and bushes are stripped bare of their leaves as they shut down for their winter break!
And, a few days ago, I became aware of one of the pre-eminent sounds of autumn, when late on a fast darkening evening a solitary voice broke the silence. It was of course, the voice of robin redbreast. Most birds have turned off the music, the principal goal of the year, the production and nurturing of the next generation, now a rapidly receding memory for most. Some, like my warbling redbreast, must by now have completed their annual moult - robins complete it in around three short weeks. Others, especially some of our waterfowl, are only part way through it and indeed may have weeks to go before they are equipped with a completely new set of feathers.
So redbreast is clearly now sporting his pristine new suit, a smart brown back tinted with a hint of olive and of course, resplendent in that bright new red waistcoat. Furthermore, already he is clearly intent on establishing his winter territory. Hence, that lone, sweet voice piercing the gathering gloom. Robins and perhaps to a slightly lesser degree wrens, unlike most other birds, are almost as keen to establish and defend such a territory now and for the forthcoming winter months, as they are in the spring. However, the desire now is to establish a feeding territory and therefore, this sudden renewal of song has nothing to do with the spring inspired desire to find a mate and breed. Hence the bursts of song in an otherwise pretty silent landscape.
Poets down the ages have revered the redbreast. Several such scribes even describe him as a pious bird, said to cover the dead with leaves and moss, a tale which apparently features in many an old ballad and a theme carried through in the legendary story, "Babes in the Wood." And to add to that vision of piety, folklore down the ages contains mythical stories that offer explanations for the robin's red breast. One such tale tells us that the robin's red breast was acquired when he flew to deposit two drops of water on the fires of Hell in a futile effort to put them out. Tradition insists that he performed this duty on a daily basis until one day he flew too close and thus scorched his breast!
A better known story perhaps, tells us that at the crucifixion, redbreast, in a kindly attempt to remove a thorn from the brow of Jesus, stained his breast red with the blood of Christ. Thus, was the robin thereafter regarded as pious and sacred, a very special bird, well deserving the attention of equally pious poets!
And of course, there is a well-known verse - "Harm a robin or a wren, Ye'll never thrive again." Another tells us - "A robin in a cage, Sends all heaven in a rage". I'm sure the latter verse must have been written in the nineteenth century when the capture and caging of wild birds was endemic in Britain, especially in the south. The attractive and sweet singing robin would seem a likely candidate to be thus imprisoned, yet such was the strength of superstition connected with this revered bird, that it was seldom a victim of that cruel pastime. Indeed such is the confidence of redbreast that he is exceptionally bold and confiding when in the presence of people, even on occasions taking scraps of food from human hand.
One of the poetic gems, written by none other than Lakeland's William Wordsworth, tells us that when the poet's sister Dorothy was in her sick bed, robins entered her bedroom and fanned her fevered brow with their wings, in order to cool her. Could there have been in that verse I wonder, a trace of poetic licence?
Yet despite such adulation, in reality, the redbreast is not quite the angel it is otherwise made out to be. Indeed during a morning of sunshine and showers last weekend, I witnessed the other side of the robin's character. My evening songster is clearly in the process of establishing that winter territory so it came as no surprise when the following little scene was played out. Enter stage right another jaunty cock robin. Instantly, enter stage left, my very belligerent, resident cock robin, not now singing but instead laying down his kingdom's law ... in no uncertain terms. Robins, I should say have been known to literally fight to the death. Place a toy cloth robin in a robin's territory and you may well find it torn to pieces by your resident cock robin!
At the belligerent approach of the resident cock robin, the trespassing cock robin instantly lost his nerve and rapidly exited stage right, hotly pursued by reigning cock robin. The territorial boundary he has established - not I must confess, so clearly visible to me - is to robins however, as clearly marked as if it had a picket fence or indeed, a stone wall around it! As soon as invading robin had left that boundary behind him as he fled, the chase was over and the king returned in triumph to his realm to resume his rather erratic if very sweet 'national anthem'!
And then, during a brief spell of warm sunshine a couple of mornings later, more voices joined the chorus, loudest among them, jenny wren who seemed equally intent upon pronouncing his quick-fire claim to winter territory. This seemed to set off a small murmuration of starlings, which had been eagerly helping themselves to the rapidly dwindling crop of rowan berries here and now rested to digest their plunder.
From these berry raiders emanated some exceptionally sweet and mellow notes, together with some ridiculous scratchings and prattlings. I couldn't help but think of that famous television sketch featuring Eric Morecambe and Andre Previn, in which the comedian claimed to be playing the right notes on the piano but not necessarily in the right order! That somehow epitomises the music of starlings!
Meanwhile redbreast continued his soliloquy, the sweet notes tripping off his tongue as if he too was making it up as he went along! Like drops of liquid gold they simply tumble from his throat, again, in no particular order. It is like making music on the hoof, or in the case of the robin, on his spindly little legs. Yet his music, even though it may perhaps be a stark reminder of the ever shortening days and in due course, of falling temperatures that are to come, nevertheless offers a tuneful shattering of the otherwise relative silence.
And he, together with his 'other half' jenny wren, will I expect, fill the sonic void during the next two or three weeks, before the landscape hereabouts will begin to resound to the louder and even more autumnal voices of the vanguard skeins of pink-footed geese. This summer's not by any means yet, a memory, but these are, I'm afraid the sounds of the forthcoming autumn and winter! But hope springs eternal that as the world continues to warm, an Indian summer may yet be just around the corner. Meanwhile robin redbreast is on guard!
"They little thought that saw him come
That robbins were so quarrelsome." King.