‘Brexit refugee’ European Robin given warm reception in Beijing

Context is everything. The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula, 欧亚鸲, Ōu yà qú) is a bird many people take for granted in Europe but when one turns up outside its normal range, it can cause much excitement. A few days ago, news broke of a European Robin in the grounds of Beijing Zoo. The response has been incredible.

The crowd on site early morning of Friday 11 January 2019.

Not surprisingly, the news spread fast among the many social media (WeChat) groups and hundreds of (mostly) photographers and birders have descended on a small corner of the grounds of the zoo to catch a glimpse of this rare visitor. After seeing a few photos of the masses from local birders, I was fascinated to see the scene for myself.

So, on Friday morning, I spent a couple of hours on site. For the first hour, with the photographers camped around the spot where the Robin comes to feed on the provided meal worms, there was no sign of the bird. The gathering very much had the feel of a social occasion with people chatting, drinking tea and catching up with friends. If the Robin had been singing or calling, it would have been hard to hear it amongst the din of 200+ people.

One photographer thought it was hilarious that an English person had come to see what he described as a British bird. In fact, many of the photographers I spoke with associated the Robin with Britain and it had even been light-heartedly called a “Brexit Refugee” on social media, escaping the political chaos in the country of its perceived origin. Why the association with Britain? Of course, the Robin was voted as the UK’s national bird in 2015 in an informal vote organised by David Lindo (The Urban Birder). And many locals knew the Robin was associated with Christmas. However, with a range across Europe and into Central Asia, the Beijing Robin is more likely to have originated from the eastern part of its range. Sadly, it is not ringed with a metal ring from one of the UK’s observatories (now THAT would have been something).

It wasn’t long before the Robin appeared close by and it was a bit of a scrum as the chatter stopped and the photographers jostled for a prime spot from where to capture their hoped-for frame filling images. Running off the path and dragging themselves through some dense branches to reach a small clearing in the habitat was no barrier.

The scene when the Robin appeared in an area of scrub.

I am happy to say I took this video from a public path!

It was all a little bizarre to see so many people so excited about a European Robin but it also helped me to see the UK’s national bird in a new light and with a new sense of awe. After all, it is one of the most charismatic and loved birds of my home nation. And despite the slightly unruly behaviour of some of the photographers, it must be an encouraging sign that so many people are taking an interest in birds and the natural world in the world’s most populous country.

It has already attracted the attention of the media – see this article by China State Television’s international website, CGTN.

The Robin at the Beijing Zoo is Beijing’s third, after previous records in the winters of 2007 and 2014.


Title image: The European Robin at Beijing Zoo, Friday 11 January 2019.