The national bird of Britain
Andrew Taylor investigates the effect of the robin as the national bird of Britain on the conservation of other species
The National Bird Vote saw the robin take 34% of the votes, followed by the barn owl and the blackbird, at 12% and 11% respectively.
Birder and organiser of the poll, David Lindo, claimed the robin’s bullish and territorial, yet chirpy nature is why Britain has voted for the robin as the country’s national bird. Our familiarity with the robin could also be why it was so popular, Grahame Madge, RSPB spokesman, says that wherever you are in Britain the robin “is only a flutter away from our footsteps, [it’s] a worthy winner”.
Another obvious factor at play is the robin’s presence in British culture. Christmas and robins seem to go hand-in-hand as they feature on cards, in carols and even gave their name to the red-coated Victorian postmen that delivered Christmas cards. The robin also has religious associations; legend suggests that the robin flew to Jesus at his crucifixion and is forever marked with Christ’s blood on its chest. It’s distinctive red breast has obviously endeared itself to the nation.
Although the robin deserves its place as the national bird due to its distinctive characteristics and historical significance, some critics of the robin’s new title say that the position of national bird should be used to spearhead a conservation movement for the species or national wildlife. The robin’s position as national bird of Britain deprives other lesser known, more endangered birds of recognition and aid. Furthermore, robins and their nests are already fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
However, the nature of the poll, leaving the British public to decide, would possibly increase the chances of well-known birds winning the title. In a separate poll at Knowsley Safari Park, 500 children under 15 were asked to identify the shortlist by their photographs. The results show that only a third of the children believed that all were actually British. One notable member of the shortlist was the Hen Harrier, which came ninth out of the shortlist. It is regarded as the most heavily persecuted bird in Britain and is targeted by gamekeepers and a raised platform would certainly be a step towards a Defra act to end its persecution.
In other countries, the Philippine eagle was declared a national bird to highlight its difficulties, the scarlet macaw was declared the national bird of Honduras in 1993 in a bid to raise awareness of the varied wildlife in the country and the ‘Near Threatened’ resplendent quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala was considered sacred both in Mayan culture and by the conquistadors.
Therefore, although the robin has a rich history within British culture, more could be done to conserve British wildlife. One way in which this could be done is through the nomination of birds of the year. Since 1995, The Estonian Ornithological society selects birds of the year to encourage interest and conservation activities. Estonia’s bird of the year for 2015 is the buzzard, which means the population is monitored, live webcams focus on breeding pairs and constant updates go up on their website, which helps to raise awareness of the species. All of this is done whilst also retaining their national bird, the Barn Swallow. Annual projects such as this would provide extensive information for a wide range of birds that would benefit from conservation.
Maintaining Britain’s national bird as the robin would capture the British spirit and confirm its historical cultural significance, however, the bird of the year would help raise the profile of the less familiar species and help bring in legislation to protect them.
This post was written by Andrew Taylor, an NTU Masters student in Museum and Heritage Management and a Culture Syndicates Heritage Assistant.