version of this post appeared on The Last Word on Nothing.
The English robin and the North American robin share a name, but ours is a large, sturdy bird, while the British one is a sweet, fat little bird with a little less red and a pretty dab of gray. In The Secret Garden, the bird that shows Mary Lennox the way into the garden is a robin, and I have always wanted one as a friend myself.
The last time I was in Britain, I saw robins often, perched on a fencepost or singing from the top of a bush. I almost always caught myself singing the song “Ah Robin,” which we sang in the 2007 Christmas Revels. I suspect this song is about a man named Robert, not a bird, but it came to mind anyway.
Swallows streaked by at fence-level, wings swept back like tiny fighter jets. “Bring back the roses to the dells/The swallow from her distant clime/The honeybee from drowsy cells,” I sang to myself.
The ecosystem I know best is that of the Washington area; I know what our swallows and robins are like. But a lot of the songs we sing in Revels were originally about spring and landscapes that have been farmed intensively for centuries, in a country on the other side of the sea. For the first time, I was seeing all of these birds in the ecological context where the songs were born, where my distant British ancestors might have seen them.
By the way: England’s blackbird is a thrush, a different family from our creaking New World blackbirds. They sing from the bushes, too, and can only bring to mind one song.
Photo: By David Croad (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons