A Birdwatcher’s Guide to The Robin

Voted Britain's favourite bird, robins are one of most recognisable and frequently seen garden visitors. They make their homes in gardens, hedges and woodland, constructing well-built, cup shaped nests using dead leaves, grass and moss and lining them with hair. Robins are opportunistic nesters, choosing a spot low down in ivy, brambles and hedging - they have even been found making a home for themselves in wellington boots, coat pockets, watering cans and post boxes, and will happily make use of an open-fronted nest box. Robins start pairing up from as early as January during a mild winter, and often find a mate by March. A male robin is expected to feed his mate during courtship, bringing her insects and seeds whenever she calls (which can be as many as fifty times each day). The female will lay two to three broods of 5-6 white eggs covered in red speckles between April and June. We didn’t have a word for the colour orange until the fruits began being imported in the sixteenth century, which is why robins were known as “redbreast” (when their colouring is more of an orange). No two robins have matching red breasts - each one is unique. They have large eyes to help them forage for food under hedgerows and short, rounded wings for flying between trees in their traditional woodland habitats. Robins have thin, seed-eating beaks and also enjoy eating insects, which they also use to keep themselves free from parasites. Robins rub ants and millipedes that they have trapped in their beaks along their feathers. The defensive chemicals released by the insect act as form of insecticide, killing the mites and ticks living on the robin. Although previously thought to belong to the thrush family, DNA analysis has now shown they belong to the flycatcher group. Robins can be found all over Europe (except in Iceland) and rarely go more than a few kilometres from where they were born throughout their lifetime. The size of a robin’s territory depends on the quality of the habitat and how many other birds live there and robins are more territorial in more built up areas because there are less nesting and feeding opportunities. They are well known for their territorial behaviour, and display their red breast to warn other birds away from their patch. If an adversary isn’t intimidated by his red breast, a robin will sing, fluff up his throat feathers, put up his tails and bow down to put his point across. When body language and furious singing fails to scare away a perceived threat, a robin will attack, pecking at the neck and lashing out with the claws and it is thought that ten percent of all robin deaths are caused by robin on robin fighting. Robins are so territorial, they will defend their feeding ground (usually 650 - 5,000 square metres) against other species of bird with similar diets and have even been known to violently attack stuffed robins, dead birds, men with red beards and bunches of red feathers. If you see two robins co-existing happily in your garden they are most likely to be a mating pair. Juvenile robins don’t grow their red feathers until after their first partial moult, which prevents adult robins from attacking their young before they have a chance to leave the breeding site. Although most birds sing mainly in spring when establishing territories and finding or protecting a mate, robins sing all year round to defend their territories (only pausing briefly while moulting their feathers), so if you hear birdsong on a bright winter’s day it is most likely the robin. They have a varied, sweet musical song and a more urgent contact call and alarm call, and juveniles use a soft, fluttering sub-song to practise for their first mating season. A robin’s song becomes brighter and bolder as spring comes around, when the changing season increases testosterone in male robins. Our connection with robins is long standing and they pop up frequently in our folklore and literature. Harming a robin or destroying its nest is thought to bring bad luck, and various stories have been written to explain the robin’s bright red breast. Some believe the blood of Jesus fell on the robin while the bird plucked thorns from his head during the crucifixion, others say the robin was burnt while protecting the wren from the flames of hell when the two birds ventured into the underworld to bring up fire during a particularly cold winter. It is also said that when a robin sings from beneath a bush the weather will be rainy, while a robin singing from the top signifies sunny days on the horizon. For many years these beautiful and bold little birds have symbolised luck and happiness - some even believe they represent the souls of lost loved ones. Whatever you believe, I don’t doubt a robin visiting your garden will bring a smile on your face as it does mine.