Research News



Latest News

Robin folklore

December 8, 2023
Charlotte Bartleet-Cross

Robin folklore

The humble robin, a symbol of Christmas, glad tidings and the coming of the cold weather. In recent years, the robin was even voted the UK's favourite bird, but where did the mystery and stories around the beautiful red-breasted bird come from? Delve into some of the magical folklore, symbology and mentions in art and literature that we have found on robins in preparation for #NationalRobinDay on the 21st December.

Christmas and Christianity

The link between robins and Christmas has been a long known tradition. But did you know that postmen during the Victorian era got nicknamed 'robins' by the bright red jackets that they wore to deliver the post? This nickname, and the delivery of Christmas cards, cemented robins as the go-to for our Christmas card designs and many people believe that this is why robins are associated with Christmas. The truth, however, predates this by quite a long time, as robins have a long-time association with Christianity, and therefore Christmas. There are several stories linking the robin to various tales in Christianity, and many of these detail how the robin got his red breast. The first is that the robin got his breast after burning himself on a fire that he fanned to try and keep the baby Jesus warm within the manger. This red breast was passed on to all of the robins that came after as a sign of their devotion to God. The second story details the robin present at Jesus Christ's crucifixion, where to ease his pain and suffering, he sings a beautiful song to Jesus. The blood from this crown then drips on to the robins breast, where it persists to show the compassion that the robin had. The last is that the robin is a constant companion in accompanying souls that have passed to purgatory, before they are judged. The red breast is once again said to be burned from flames as the robin passes the souls safely through to purgatory.

Tales of the robin in poetry and literature

Due to their fascinating backstory, robins would of course be widely represented in art and literature. Even the great wordsmith Shakespeare took the time to mention the robin in Two Gentlemen of Verona, concluding that one can state when they are in love as they 'relish a lovesong like a robin redbreast', and one of his famed characters Puck from a midsummer nights dream, is also known as Robin Goodfellow!

Robins are often shown to be guides, which can be seen in the C.S. Lewis story Chronicles of Narnia, where a robin leads the Pevensies forward to safety.

"...a robin, you know. They’re good birds in all the stories I’ve ever read. I’m sure a robin wouldn’t be on the wrong side.” - Quote from Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

The robin could also not be forgotten in poetry, with mentions of robin redbreasts throughout history. William Blakes famous 'Auguries of Innocence' discusses how 'A robin red breast in a cage, puts all heaven in a rage', echoing many of the feelings of the time, that birds are a true symbol of freedom, and the robin flitting here and there is synonymous with the beautiful British countryside, and to cage it would be an affront to nature. The famous poet John Clare also took the time to pen 'The Autumn Robin', a fitting tribute to our favourite bird. Many of his poems celebrated the British countryside, and he wrote much of his disappointment in how the rural areas were changing in the 1800s as the industrial revolution raged. The Autumn Robin takes you through the countryside and how the robins song touches the hearts of all who listen, relieving their woes and loneliness. It also mentions a few of our other favourites, the swallow and the nightingale, singing in the beautiful autumnal landscape.

Thomas Hardy also took a liking to the robin, and dedicated an entire poem to it, seen below:

When up aloft
I fly and fly,
I see in pools
The shining sky,
And a happy bird
Am I, am I!

When I descend
Toward the brink
I stand and look
And stop and drink
And bathe my wings,
And chink, and prink.

When winter frost
Makes earth as steel,
I search and search
But find no meal,
And most unhappy
Then I feel.

But when it lasts,
And snows still fall,
I get to feel
No grief at all
For I turn to a cold, stiff
Feathery ball!

You can see even more robin themed poetry in the collection 'The One in the Red Cravat', which details many poems which are an ode to our feathered friend.

Death, doom and gloom

Robins have long been linked to death, with many of us uttering the phrase 'robins appear when loved ones are near'. They are a symbol of hope and remembrance as we think of our passed loved ones. There are many mentions over time of robins appearing at funerals, as if they are paying their respects to the dead, and ready to accompany them to the afterlife. One of the most famous examples of this is a robin, dubbed the 'Westminster Wonder', who was seen at Queen Mary II's funeral in 1695 and then continued to 'stand guard', in and around Westminster abbey and her mausoleum, singing softly. Tales in folklore show the robin, again, to be compassionate, with the famous tale of 'Babes in the wood', where two children were abandoned by their family in the woods and left to pass away. Upon their death, robins were said to bring leaves to cover them as a sign of respect.

Whilst the majority of our folklore deems robins to be beautiful beings of hope, there are several tales of robins being associated with evil. Within Scottish folklore, the robins song symbolises hardship towards people if they are sick when they hear its melody, which is similar to other traditions where knocking 3 times at a window or a long robins lament signals a coming death.

In many cultures, causing harm to a robins nest spells disaster, with some saying destruction of a nest causing wildfire to damage houses, or causes disease and turmoil to afflict the perpetrator of the harm. In Irish folklore, harming a robin is thought to cause such a large growth in the hand, that the person would not be able to work, whereas Scottish tales show that capturing a robin nest brings bad luck on your house. Similarly, in Norse mythology, the robin was linked to the God of Lightning, Thor. This is likely due to their aggressive nature and willingness to defend their territory relentlessly. The robin was thought to be under Thor's protection, almost sacred, and therefore lightning would strike anyone who harmed a robin, its nest, or eggs.

The robin is one of our most versatile songbirds, discussed across history and featured in our lives in so many ways. It is no wonder that poets, artists, biologists and authors alike want to know more about the red-breasted songsmith. Why not share with us your tales of robins, the folklore you heard as a child, or even your favourite piece of literature that talks about songbirds. Get in touch, we'd love to hear it!

The SBS Team

If you have a species you would like us to cover on #theSBSblog, please contact us at or our Research and Engagement Manager at


Byghan, Y. (2020). Sacred and Mythological Animals: A Worldwide Taxonomy. United States: McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers.

Stevans, C.M., Daniels, C.L. (2003) Encyclopædia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World: Volume II.. United States: University Press of the Pacific.

Tate, P. (2009). Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition. United Kingdom: Random House.

get in touch