redbreast defined in 1930 yearredbreast - Redbreast;
redbreast - Upper parts olive-brown; forehead and breast red, the red edged with grey; belly white. Female: a trifle smaller than the male, and less bright in colour. Length, five inches and three-quarters.
Of man's feathered favourites - the species he has thought proper to distinguish by a kindly protective sentiment - the redbreast probably ranks first, both on account of the degree of the feeling and its universality. The trustfulness of the familiar robin, especially in seasons of snow and frost, in coming about and entering our houses in quest of crumbs, is the principal cause of such a sentiment; but the highly attractive qualities of the bird have doubtless added strength to it. The bright red of his breast, intensified by contrast with the dark olive of the upper parts, gives him a rare beauty and distinction among our small songsters, which are mostly sober- coloured. Even more than beauty in colouring and form is a sweet voice; and here, where good singers are not few, the robin is among the best. Not only is he a fine singer, but in the almost voiceless autumn season, and in winter, when the other melodists that have not left our shores are silent, the robin still warbles his gushing, careless strain, varying his notes at every repetition, fresh and glad and brilliant as in the springtime. His song, indeed, never seems so sweet and impressive as in the silent and dreary season. For one thing, the absence of other bird-voices causes the robin's to be more attentively listened to and better appreciated than at other times, just as we appreciate the nightingale best when he ' sings darkling ' - when there are no other strains to distract the attention. There is also the power of contrast - the bright, ringing lyric, a fountain of life and gladness, in the midst of a nature that suggests mournful analogies - autumnal decay and wintry death. There cannot be a doubt that the robin gives us all more pleasure with his music than any other singing-bird; we hear him all the year round and all our lives long, and his voice never palls on us. But those who have always heard it, for whom this sound has many endearing associations, might have some doubts about its intrinsic merits as a song - they might think that they esteem it chiefly because of the associations it has for them. In such a case one is glad to have an independent opinion - that, for instance, of an intelligent foreigner,' who has never heard this bird in his own country. Such an opinion we may find in John Burroughs, the American writer on birds; and it may well reassure those who love the robin's song, but fear to put their favourite bird in the same category with the nightingale, blackcap, and garden-warbler. He writes: ' The English robin is a better songster than I expected to find him. The poets and writers have not done him justice. He is of the royal line of the nightingale, and inherits some of the qualities of that famous bird. His favourite hour for singing is the gloaming, and I used to hear him the last of all. His song is peculiar, jerky, and spasmodic, but abounds in the purest and most piercing tones to be heard - piercing from their smoothness, intensity, and fulness of articulation; rapid and crowded at one moment, as if some barrier had suddenly given way, then as suddenly pausing, and scintillating at intervals bright, tapering shafts of sound. It stops and hesitates, and blurts out its notes like a stammerer; but when they do come, they are marvellously clear and pure. I have heard green hickory-branches thrown into a fierce blaze jet out the same fine, intense, musical sounds on the escape of the imprisoned vapours in the hard wood as characterise the robin's song.'
The robin is an early breeder, and makes its nest beneath a hedge, or in a bank, or in a close bush not far above the ground; it is formed of dry grass, leaves, and moss, and lined with feathers. Six or seven eggs are laid, reddish white in ground-colour, clouded or blotched, and freckled with pale red. When the nest is approached the old birds express their anxiety by a very curious sound - a prolonged note so acute that, like the shrill note of some insects and the bat's cry, it is inaudible to some persons. Two, and even three, broods are raised in the season.
At the end of summer the old birds disappear from their usual haunts to moult; and during this perhaps painful, and certainly dangerous, period, they remain secluded and unseen in the thickest foliage. When they reappear in new and brighter dress, restored to health and vigour, a fresh trial awaits them. The young they have hatched and fed and protected have now attained to maturity, and are in possession of their home. For it is the case that every pair of robins has a pretty well-defined area of ground which they regard as their own, jealously excluding from it other individuals of their own species. The young are forthwith driven out, often not without much fighting, which may last for many days, and in which the old bird is sometimes the loser. But in most cases the old robin reconquers his territory, and the young male, or males, if not killed, go otherwhere. And here we come upon an obscure point in the history of this familiar species; for what becomes of the young dispossessed birds is not yet known. It has been conjectured that they migrate, and that not many return from their wanderings beyond the sea. And it is not impossible to believe that the migratory instinct may exist in the young of a species, although obsolete at a later period of life.
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