In her classic account of English rural life, Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson records attitudes to wild birds towards the end of the 19th century. At a time when egg collecting was a respectable hobby, country boys would engage in wholesale nest robbing and hunting of small birds. The families were chronically poor, and casting a net over a hedge of roosting sparrows would secure a meal:
One boy would often bring home as many as twenty sparrows, which his mother would pluck and make into a pudding. A small number of birds, or a single bird, would be toasted in front of the fire.
But Thompson notes that the birds in this popular rhyme were left alone:
The robin and the wrens
Be God Almighty’s friends.
And the martin and the swallow
Be God Almighty’s birds to follow.
Much of the folklore surrounding the robin centres on explaining how its breast came to be red: while Jesus was on the cross, a robin came to comfort him and was stained by blood as it sang on his shoulder. Another tale has the robin taking water to tormented souls in hell and getting singed by the fires. Both robins and swallows plucked thorns from Jesus’s crown. Consequently, a house was blessed if swallows nested there, but cursed if they deserted it.
The photo of a trusting robin was posted on Flickr by Theresa Gunn