— Outrage as robin is declared the UK’s national bird —
It’s perhaps surprising that the United Kingdom didn’t have a national bird, official or otherwise, until last week. Many other countries have long had one: India has the glorious peacock; Kenya, the delectable lilac-breasted roller; and an emu appears on Australia’s Commonwealth Coat of Arms – although, strangely, Rod Hull is nowhere to be seen, unless he’s been immortalised as a kangaroo. In recent decades, along with pasta, latte and men’s hair conditioner, birds have hit the big time in this country. They are endlessly filmed, photographed and fed, as never before. And indeed fed so much that an enclave of sparrows near Clacton are now so full of nuts they are quite unable to fly and languish on the ground, nesting in burrows, where, to distract themselves from their self-loathing, they have begun to breed with mice.
Yes, people love birds. Yet, until now, no one type of these feathered marvels had been raised up above all the rest, where it could stand proud and represent their kind and also say a thing or two about our national self-image.
But all that has now changed. The robin has been voted by the public to be our national bird. At least, unofficially. Yes, the robin. It’s a lovely bird. A lovely bird. And, for me, that’s a problem.
What does the robin’s victory say about us? And which common bird do I think should have won instead? (And it didn’t even make the top ten.)
Choosing a national bird is not just about the bird. And not just about which bird we think best represents the whole of the birdlife of these isles. No, a choice of national bird says just as much about us as a people. Naturally, we choose a bird we like and because we think it deserves the accolade. But we also choose it because we believe, if only subconsciously, it is an integral and important part of being British, of Britishness.
We must ask, therefore, what in fact is a robin? What comes across? You know already: it’s a small, gentle-looking bird (although, perhaps not so gentle), with dark brown eyes set into a gorgeously rounded head, a head which merges graciously and almost imperceptibly with the rounded body. There are no offensive angles to bother us, no sharp deviations which disrupt the movement of our eye. It’s like a fluffy pom-pom mounted on stick legs. And all of it is encased in the softest, comforting plumage which it often plumps up for your delight. It lands lightly on a garden fence on a snowy winter’s morning. There it stands, nobly, like a glowing beacon in the struggling light. It is amiable, trustworthy, a true friend. It may feed from your hand, if you’re lucky, being such a plucky little character. It would have joined the Home Guard, given half a chance. It is always polite. And it’s a bit of a loner, and perhaps also a little eccentric in its ways, with its red breast (actually an orange breast-face combo), which is colourful but not over the top, not too brash. It is all of these things. And it warms the hearts of old ladies and young children alike, as they offer it breadcrumbs and broken biscuits on Christmas day, while still dressed in their nightclothes.
In short, I believe the robin is what the voters saw in themselves, it’s their ideal, projected out into the wider world. And all the qualities of the robin are what they believe Britain is or should be. Or was.
They could have chosen the crow. But the crow is far harder to identify with, compared to the robin. It takes more work. A crow wouldn’t be seen dead in the robin’s orange bib, not a chance. It doesn’t need to make up for anything. Because isn’t there hidden, within its shadowy covering, behind that brutal jet-black beak, something unknown, something which may demand of us to step outside the way we normally think? A silent, unfathomable, brooding universe from which we may shrink, or fill with all the powers of our imagination. The crow is not a crow; it’s a world within a world. A robin is just a robin. It has no truck with metaphysics, no time for possibilities, only practicalities. We prefer the robin, which has the good decency to wear its character on its sleeve. It provides all and no more than what many an English person requires: a flash of orange on a frosty morning, sir? – here you go! Biscuits? Lovely, don’t mind if I do. Any crumpets? No?… well, never mind, perhaps tomorrow.
Or the winner could have been the great spotted woodpecker, a bird so outlandish in its garb it must have taken leave of its senses. Why on earth is it dressed as some crazy jester? Why is it hammering away at a dead tree, in solitude, in a dank wood, unseen? It must be up to something. No, that won’t do at all. The pigeon, too, would never win, despite it being so bloody awful by dint of its thorough-going unremarkableness, perhaps it should. But, again, it is too much of an extreme for us.
Yet isn’t it these extremes of size, behaviour, colour and character which attract other places and other cultures to their own particular national bird? Vulture, hoopoe, flamingo, stork; toucan, eagle, condor, hawk. All national birds. All exciting, dramatic, highly colorful, or bizarre. We could have had the golden eagle, soaring majestically against a stormy sky. But we have opted for the robin. And according to my analysis, it should be the right bird to choose, fitting perfectly our idea of what we are, how we live, our attitudes. A round peg in a round hole. And indeed it is in many ways. But there’s a better, glaringly obvious bird which has been missed, one which, in general, matches the British outlook perfectly.
It’s the starling. The starling is a much maligned bird, perhaps even more than gulls or sparrows. It is seen as noisy and erratic, darting this way and that between the houses, chattering feverishly on the eaves, dressed in its drab outfit. Quite oblivious to good taste, each morning it pulls on what first comes to hand and thinks no more about it. And it seems happy to feed on anything – and does so frantically, pecking unreflectively, head down, tail up, with a constant sense of urgency. Who does that blackbird think he is up there, perched alone upon the roof, sending out his sweet melody across the great blue sky? Very la-di-da, I must say. Yet the starling is in fact worth a second look. Their speckles are engaging and seem to sparkle in the sun. And how innocent they seem, in all they do. There is no pretentiousness, no desire for greater things, or to stand out from the crowd, which they follow everywhere. And they are resourceful too, often making do with what they find and not wasting time dreaming of how things could or should have been.
Yes, the starling in quintessentially British, or perhaps English. It should have been the victor.
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