Uday Kumar Varma
It is difficult to miss her. Her black and white plumage presents a style both elegant and flashy. Her beauty and frolic offer an incomparable combination and an uplifting sight to the beholder. Her sweet sonorous twitters are soothing and calming.
The oriental magpie robin is one of the commonest birds in our gardens and one of the most beautiful. It is a distinctive black and white bird with a long tail that is held upright as it forages on the ground or perches conspicuously. Her singing is melodious, never too shrill to be called jarring and never too subdued to be called tame.
It is a small bird, just about 19 centimetres (7.5 inches) long, including the long tail, usually cocked upright when hopping on the ground. However, when singing, the tail points downwards like regular birds. It is similar in shape to the smaller European robin, but the tail is longer. The male has glossy black upperparts, head and throat and a contrasting white shoulder patch. The underparts and the sides of the long tail are white. Females are greyish black above and greyish white elsewhere. Younger birds have scaly brown upperparts. The diet of magpie-robins includes insects and other invertebrates. Although primarily insectivorous, they are known to occasionally take flower nectar, small geckos, errant leeches, trespassing centipedes and even visible fish.
At times they are seen bathing in rainwater collected on the leaves of a tree. While they are often more active late at dusk, in my own observation, they are the sweetest and the calmest in the mornings.
Our magpie robin would be described scientifically as a small passerine bird. It was formerly classified as a member of the thrush family (Turdidae) but is now considered an Old World flycatcher. It’s scientific name is Copsychus saularis.
The robin is a daytime or diurnal bird, although it has been reported to be active hunting insects on moonlit nights or near artificial lights at night. It is relatively unafraid of people and drawn to human activities, especially those involving the digging of soil, in order to look out for earthworms and other food freshly turned up.
Male robins are noted for their highly aggressive territorial behaviour. They will fiercely attack other males and competitors that stray into their territories and have been observed attacking other small birds without apparent provocation. There are instances of robins attacking their own reflection. Territorial disputes sometimes lead to fatalities, accounting for up to 10% of adult robin deaths in some areas.
Due to high mortality in its first year, a robin has an average life expectancy of only 1.1 years; however, if it survives its first year it can expect to live much longer and one robin has been recorded as reaching 19 years of age. They are vulnerable to temperature fluctuations and a spell of very low temperatures in winter may also result in significant mortality.
The robin produces a pleasant fluting warbling during the breeding season. Both the male and female sing during the winter, when they hold separate territories, the song sounding more plaintive than its summer version. The female robin moves a short distance from its summer nesting territory to a nearby area more suitable for winter feeding. The male robin keeps the same territory throughout the year.
During the breeding season, male robins usually initiate their morning song an hour before sunrise and terminate their daily singing around thirty minutes after sunset. Nocturnal singing can also occur in urban areas that are artificially lit during the night. Under artificial light, nocturnal singing is often used by urban robins to actively shunt daytime anthropogenic noise. A variety of other calls are also made at several times of the year, including a ticking note indicating anxiety or mild alarm.
Counterparts Outside India
The European robin (Erithacus rubecula) known locally as simply the robin or robin redbreast, is a smaller, more colourful version of its oriental cousin. It is about 14 cm (5.5 inches) in length. Unlike its monochromatic relative, it is endowed with an orange breast and face, lined with greyish brown upper-parts and a white belly. It is found across Europe, Siberia and even Africa.
The distinctive orange breast of both sexes contributed to the European robin’s original name of “redbreast” (orange as a colour name was unknown in England until the 16th century, the time this fruit was introduced). As a given name, “robin” is originally a diminutive of “Robert”. Other older English names for the bird include “Ruddock” and “Robinet”. In 15th century England, when it was popular to give human names to familiar species, the bird came to be known as robin redbreast, which was shortened to robin. The Dutch roodborstje, French rouge-gorge, German rotkehlchen, Italian pettirosso, Spanish petirrojo and Portuguese pisco-de-peito-ruivo all names also reference its distinctively coloured front. In American literature of the late 19th century, this robin was frequently called the English robin.
Closer home, in Bangladesh, the oriental magpie robin is common and known as the doyel or doel (Bengali দোয়েল). Professor Kazi Zakir Hossain of Dhaka University proposed the magpie robin bird as the national bird of Bangladesh; the reasoning being that it can be seen in towns and villages everywhere across the country. The magpie robin was thus declared the national bird of Bangladesh. The bird is a common sight in Sri Lanka too, where it is called Polkichcha.
The term robin is also applied to some birds in other families with red or orange breasts. These include the American robin (Turdus migratorius), a thrush, and the Australasian robins of the family Petroicidae, the relationships of which are unclear.
Magpies command a rich perch in folklore. Indeed, the robin is considered to be a gardener’s friend and for various folklore reasons it would never be harmed.
Oriental magpie robins were widely kept as cage birds for their singing abilities and for fighting in India in the past. They continue to be sold in the pet trade in parts of Southeast Asia. It is a widely used symbol in Bangladesh, appearing on currency notes, and a landmark in the city of Dhaka is named as the Doel Chattar, meaning – Doel (Robin) Square.
The robin features prominently in British folklore and that of northwestern France, but much less so in other parts of Europe. In Norse mythology, it was held to be a storm-cloud bird and sacred to Thor, the God of Thunder. Robins feature in the traditional English children’s tale Babes in the Wood, where the birds cover the bodies of the children.
The robin has become strongly associated with Christmas in England, taking a starring role on many Christmas cards since the mid-19th century. The robin has appeared on many Christmas postage stamps. Two reasons have been attributed to this. An old British folktale has it that when Jesus was dying on the cross, the robin, then simply brown in colour, flew to his side and sang into his ear in order to comfort him in his pain. The blood from his wounds stained the robin’s breast, and thereafter all robins carry the mark of Christ’s blood upon them. An alternative legend has it that its breast was scorched fetching water for souls in Purgatory.
The most likely association with Christmas however probably arises from the fact that postmen in Victorian England wore red jackets and were nicknamed “Robins”; the robin featured on the Christmas card is an emblem of the postman delivering the card.
Several English and Welsh sports organisations today are nicknamed “Robins”, typically used for teams whose home colours predominantly use red. These include the professional football clubs Bristol City, Crewe Alexandra, Swindon Town and Cheltenham Town. A small bird may appear to be an unusual choice for a sporting team, but a robin is also thought to symbolise agility in the way it darts around, the same serving as a good symbol for players on the field.
We shall now consider reflection of two poets on this magnificent avian species of beauty and grace. First, by Pradip Chattopadhyay:
“Magpie Robin on her black and white wings,
all day seems to frolic twitters sweetest nothings,
is she singing her songs to lay a lover’s trap,
or love she isn’t searching but her hunger’s scrap!
She’s the cutest damsel hopping the ledges for insect,
with no rainbow on her plumes yet dazzlingly perfect,
is she whistling to catch a heart find for her one good mate?
or it’s only her hunger’s call, still can wait her first date!”
Next, a poem by a poet you may simply call ‘Grandpa’:
A Marvel in Black and White
The elegance of black; the brilliance of white
The agility of her frolic
The melody of her song
Stirring the heart, suffusing the soul
Leaping to the tune
On a cool serene dawn!
Whose memory do you evoke? Who do you call?
Who do you pine, who do you recall?
Mesmerizing me, captivating all
No music ever did enchant
I yearn to hear the response of your mate
Why is he so late?
But why worry, why bother?
The divinity of this music does never
Diminish nor dilute!
Neither wane, nor fade!
Strains of melody
Lingering in cascading cadence!
Filling me with boundless bliss
Ecstatic as an adolescent kiss
A joy of magnificent magnitude
Why should I call it solitude?
The author, Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.