One of the joys of a still December’s day is the plaintive winter song of the robin ringing out across the garden or woodland. This is softer and lest assertively sung than in spring and summer but may be heard at any time of day especially dawn and dusk. Both male and female sing as they hold separate territories during winter: the male defends the breeding territory, while the female of the pair moves a short distance away to hold an area with good feeding opportunities.
A small, neat bird, the robin is a relative of the chats, redstarts, and flycatchers. It is common throughout the country, and resident across the whole of the British Isles mainland but for the mountaintops of the highlands.
It must be one of the few birds which everyone will recognises, with its distinctive orange-red breast the colour of which also extends up to the bird’s “face” around the bill and eyes. This very visible plumage is used in display when birds are defending territory. The bird thrusts out its breast and fluffs up its feathers to make the show of red as prominent as possible. You may see two birds facing off against each other seeing which can display most impressively before a chase ensues. The red breast provokes such a strong response that they sometimes attack their own reflection in a window. However, as male and female have the same plumage, the red breast has no courtship role. In the languages of several continental countries the bird’s name also refers to the red breast and British colonists took the term robin with them so that birds with red breasts in both north America and Australia are referred to as robins, even though they are not from related families.
We take for granted that robins are quite comfortable near humans and will hop around us looking for food items disturbed by our gardening. This appears result from people’s longstanding affection for and protection of the bird in this country. In contrast, on the continent where some huntsmen have a propensity to shoot anything that moves – including robins – they are considerably more wary.
The birds are quite short lived, many fledglings fail to make it through their first winter because, in common with all small birds, robins will lose body weight very quickly in extended chilly weather. This is when garden feeding can be critical for their survival.
Even those that survive usually only live on for a couple of years. So, although we may regularly see robins in our garden, over the years they are likely to be a sequence of different birds rather than the same ones. They are sedentary, rather than migratory, so vacant territories will likely be filled by locally bred birds, perhaps the offspring of the previous territory holder.
by Andrew Graham
Photo: Barn owl
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