Our symbol of winter cheer
If there is one wild creature synonymous with this time of year, it is the ever-present Robin
The robin enjoys a popularity with the British which is unrivalled by any other species. A familiar visitor at the bird table in winter and constant gardening companion through the spring and summer months, it is a year-round bird whose presence is cheering and comforting. Although robins of exactly the same species nest over most of Europe, a tendency on the continent to shoot and eat small birds has made robins there generally much more shy and retiring woodland birds. We Brits are lucky to have our special relationship with this bright bird.
The bird’s popularity in Britain has built up over hundreds of years; legends about the bad luck incurred by anyone harming a robin go back to the 16th century. A Christian link has been attached to the legend because the robin’s red breast was supposedly stained by blood after the bird had been pricked by Christ’s crown of thorns. This is why the robin features prominently on the earliest Christmas cards.
The adults get together as pairs in early January. The sexes look exactly alike, which can cause complications for the feisty bird, as they can only recognise males and females can only recognise each other by display and posture. An unmated male singing loudly in his territory will, at first, behave aggressively to any intruding robin. If the intruder is a male it either retreats or tries to oust the occupier. If the new bird is a female seeking a mate, she persists in approaching the resident male, apparently unimpressed by his threats. Over a period of some hours, sometimes as much as two days, the bond between the two is built up so that they accept each other.
In many species this pair-bonding is directly followed by nest-building and egg-laying. With the robin, pairing is accomplished weeks or even months before any nesting attempt is made. During this time the birds occupy the same territory and recognise each other as mates but do not pay much attention to each other.
As the weather improves though, the hen bird starts to build her nest, using moss and dead leaves and lining it with hair. In the natural state she may choose a rocky crevice or hollow of an ivy-covered tree, but in this modern world robins often choose very weird and wonderful sites – they have been found in a chest of drawers in sheds, and even inside post boxes!
A regular and common sight in gardens across the country, the robin loves to find a fence to watch the world go by. It is a particularly vocal bird, constantly singing to defend its territory.
When she begins to build the nest the female also starts to receive food from the male. This is an important source of food for the female; one that she almost completely relies on during incubation.
The clutch of white eggs with pale reddish freckling is laid, one egg each day, and the complete clutch is generally five or six eggs, although up to nine have been recorded. The incubating female loses the feathers from her breast and belly, and the blood vessels just under the skin enlarge greatly. The bare skin and increased blood supply allow her to transfer heat more efficiently to the eggs.
After two weeks the eggs hatch out and the blind chicks, covered in thin dark down, increasingly dominate the parents’ lives with their enormous appetites. Both adult and young robins feed on insects, spiders and worms. They do not generally eat seeds or berries. About fifteen days after hatching these young robins, now weighing more than their parents, leave the nest.
When the fledglings leave the nest they face two or three days of great danger since they cannot yet fly well. At this stage they have a soft speckled brown plumage with no trace of their parents’ red breast. By the beginning of June they start to lose their body feathers and to develop their red breasts – growing from the bottom upwards.
The wings do not moult but continue to develop until July of the next year when they reach full size.
Once the young are fledged the adults build a new nest within the same territory and, unless they are prevented for any reason (for example disturbance by a cat, flooding of the nest in bad weather, or thoughtless hedgerow cutting) will raise another brood in May. Our robins really are very busy!
After all that activity, it is time for a slightly quieter summer. For a period of five weeks, the adult robins make themselves less obvious and less active, hiding away in shrubs and thickets as they replace their old feathers with new ones. During this moult the adult robins also fall silent – the only time of the year when the robin song is not a feature of the British countryside.
As the second brood of young birds acquires its red plumage and the adult birds their replacement plumage, the autumn song starts up. The rich and fruity spring song of the males gives way to the thinner, more piping song of the young and old, cock and hen, as each claims its own territory; this is kept, with a few local alterations, through the winter until paring takes place. In times of real food shortage, territoriality breaks down as all the birds concentrate on feeding.
Although some British robins migrate each autumn, most stay within a mile or two of their birthplace. So what happens to all these robins? If each pair of adults raises two broods with five or six young in each, there are six times as many robins at the end of the breeding season than at the start. A single pair would become almost ten million pairs at the end of ten years. In fact, the majority die. Sadly, but naturally, of the original pair and their offspring, on average only one adult and one youngster survive.
Seemingly against the odds though, this bright, cheeky bird not only survives but thrives. Pop some fat balls out on a feeding table, and you will have a visitor which adds a welcome splash of colour to the dark and frosty winter days – and a constant companion during the summer which currently seems so far away.