Spectator: When the red, red robin…

Why robins, asks Lucy Baring.

There is, as I write, an important vote still being counted and no exit polls to guide me. Before voting closed, on May 7, the pollsters had the robin ahead, but they have been known to be wrong.
In asking us to vote for Britain’s National Bird, plenty of experts urged us not to vote for the incumbent robin, but I’ve heard three stories over the past couple of weeks that may or may not be significant when it comes to the ballot box.

We went to a marriage blessing in a tent in a Hampshire garden. Halfway through the second hymn (with organ music playing on a sound system), a lightbulb exploded and all the electrics fused. In true British form, the congregation never missed a beat, but redoubled its efforts for a rousing verse three.
We all later agreed that the exploding lightbulb had probably been a sign from the groom’s mother, who died last year, and in whose garden we were now assembled, that we shouldn’t think we could have a party without her.

Continuing this conversational theme, a fellow guest told me that, just before she died, her best friend had asked her if she would like a visit or two—from the other side. Unable to say no thanks, she agreed that it would be lovely and, when the best friend asked what she’d like her to come back as, she suggested a robin, as she’s always adored them. Within days of the funeral, one appeared in her garden and eyed her up knowingly. It remains a regular visitor, although she’s never had one in her garden before.

I recount this story to Katy, who doesn’t think it remarkable. This is because, on the day of her father’s funeral, while her mother was having a quiet contemplative sit just before heading for the church, a robin appeared at her feet—and it had had quite a journey through the house to get there. It so happens that her father was called Robin, but, whatever the explanation, it was a charming visit.

And then I walk with my least fanciful friend and recount both these tales, to which she responds: ‘Have I never told you about Mum and the robins?’ Her mother always maintained that, when her own mother died, robins had appeared in her garden, where they’d never been seen before. My friend and her siblings listened to this story many times without ever giving it a moment of credence—they’re of the scientific persuasion.

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Then her mother died and, on the anniversary of her death, my unfanciful friend stood on her terrace thinking about her when, suddenly, a robin appeared. She remembered her mother’s tale about her grandmother and considered this an amusing coincidence, but, before she could give it much thought, she had to go indoors to answer the phone. It was her sister, who was staying in Cornwall. She’d rung to say that a robin had just flown into the kitchen and was now sitting on the finger of her young son— she took photos to prove it.

It doesn’t matter if one lends these tales the significance that they hold for the teller. Robins are territorial, after all, and should one appear in the garden, it’s likely to be a regular visitor. And it’s extremely unlikely that there would be more than one, as in the story of the grandmother, but I haven’t heard this sort of thing about another bird.

I wasn’t one of the 213,000 voters in this election and would have been a floating voter in any case. There’s a blue tit nesting in the hollow of a metal gatepost here that might, this week, have got my vote. There are 3.4 million breeding pairs of blue tits in the UK, but there are fewer than 5,000 pairs of kingfishers, which I also love—but this isn’t about proportional representation.

I will say however, that if the red kite, of which there are now 1,600 pairs, attracts more than a handful of votes, I will eat my hat.