What better way to send Nature Therapy readers festive greetings? By picking robins as a topic, we ensured our illustration features the bird that is also decorating millions of British Christmas cards. The motif is particularly appropriate this year. High energy prices mean this will be a hard winter for Northern Europeans. And robins are tenacious cold weather survivors.
The European robin is the unofficial national bird of the UK for two main reasons. First, they have pretty, red shirtfronts. Second, British robins are confident around people. Their continental cousins are not. The real answer to the question “who killed Cock Robin?” is: a French bloke with a shotgun.
With a little patience, you can tame a robin. The Liberal statesman Lord Grey used to walk around his garden with one perching on his hat. When I am digging, our garden robin generally swoops down to forage for worms and grubs. It hops about confidingly a foot or so from my boot cap.
When robins aren’t feeding, they are singing lustily. Most garden birds do not do so at this time of year. They are concentrating on keeping warm.
So am I. It is chilly in our house and my corner of the office.
I was researching this article — puzzling over the reason why so few British robins migrate to warmer countries — when a colleague from Facilities came by.
“We’ll turn the heating up,” she said, surveying my coat and scarf. “But it takes a little while. You could always hotdesk in the newsroom for a bit. It’s warmer there.”
“No thanks,” I said. Where might I end up if I abandoned my sought-after desk on the mezzanine, with its commanding views of the traffic lights and easy access to the cake trolley on Wednesdays? A janitor’s cupboard on Level Minus Two, perhaps?
“People are territorial, aren’t they?” my colleague observed.
So are robins. Breeding success depends on holding a territory that produces enough worms and insects to feed a couple of broods per year. Most male territory holders therefore cling on through the winter, taking on all challengers. A proportion of females do the same thing.
This creates a fearsome metabolic challenge. Every day, small birds need to consume almost their own body weight to stay alive. In winter, natural prey is scarce and energy expenditure is heavier. You can help robins survive by feeding at ground level with mealworms and fat pellets, says Adrian Thomas of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Robin mortality is very high. There are some 7.3mn robins in the UK, according to Tom Stewart of the British Trust for Ornithology. My own rough figuring suggests they may produce around 30mn tiny, cinnamon-spotted eggs per year. Around three-fifths of those eggs turn into fledglings, of which around a quarter survive their first year.
After that, the cohort halves every year. If you are a wild robin, your chances of reaching the grand old age of 11 is around one in 7,000, I calculate.
That fluffy robin in your garden needs to be as hard as nails. Hence occasional articles in newspapers and country magazines “exposing” the “nasty” robin. Robins are fighters, it is true. But I think the establishing factoid of these pieces is codswallop. It alleges that a tenth of male robins are killed every year by other robins. This claim apparently originates from a 1984 doctoral thesis I could not find online or in print catalogues.
I am more persuaded by David Lack, whose funny, erudite monograph The Life of the Robin is a must-read for anyone interested in this bird. After years of field studies, the ornithologist concluded it was rare for robins to kill one another. Singing, displays of red plumage and a few well-aimed pecks resolve the vast majority of border disputes.
Lack’s robins knocked the sawdust out of stuffed birds he placed in their territories. A head on a wire was all that remained of one of them. But living adversaries fly away. They do not stick around for further drubbings.
I attempted to replicate Lack’s research, painting a couple of hen’s eggs with robin livery and attaching cardboard wings and tails.
“I hope you aren’t proposing to put those on the Christmas tree?” asked my wife.
“No. This is a serious scientific experiment,” I told her loftily, gluing pointy little beaks and beady eyes to the eggs.
Then my son appeared.
“Nice decorations,” he said.
“They aren’t really decorations,” I replied.
“Sure they are,” he said, “Believe in yourself, dad!”
The garden robin did not believe in my decoys, though. It ignored them. Perched on our fence, they looked weirdly bright and clumsy compared with the mercurial little bird.
It probably thought they were Christmas decorations.
The robin did sing volubly in response to a recording of another bird played through a Bluetooth speaker. Proponents of the Thug Robin Hypothesis imagine the message is, “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.”
But to my mind, the bird was only repeating the old motto: “What I have, I hold.”
Jonathan Guthrie is the head of Lex
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