As Christmas cards start to arrive, I amuse myself with my usual game of
trying to spot this year’s special image. Sometimes the magi seem to
predominate, sometimes the shepherds and sometimes Santa Claus. Whichever
it is, you can be sure of one thing – the robin is always popular: cheerful
amid the frost and snow, it seems to epitomise an English Christmas. Yet,
for all its cheerful song and friendly demeanour, the robin is actually a
very pugnacious little bird. Both males and females jealously guard their
winter territories, singing to warn off trespassers, and, once spring
arrives and pairs are established, the male develops his territorial song
and, if that fails, will physically attack any interloper. Experiments
have shown that robins react fiercely, even pecking a bit of cloth to
shreds, if it bears the characteristic robin-red colour.
What really endears the robin to us is its friendliness towards people.
In the rest of Europe, it is a shy bird of the woods, but here it seems
positively to seek out human company. What gardener has not been charmed by
the way the resident robin follows him around as he digs and even perches
on his spade as he pauses for a rest? Of course, like all wild creatures,
behaviour has to have its pay-off. As the cattle egret in Africa follows
the family of elephants or buffalo – even riding on the animals’ back at
times, and is thus able to feast off the insects disturbed in the course of
their grazing – so our robins haunt us as we lumber about, helpfully
unearthing tasty morsels from the soil or producing delicious snacks from
among our left-overs. We get the delight of their company and the thrill of
their music in the darkest months of the year: they get a living. It’s a
Robins are also amazingly confiding in their choice of nest site too.
Some of the best stories of unlikely nesting are about robins: from the
breast pocket of Worzel Gummidge, the scarecrow, to real-life locations in
kettles or tool sheds. The best one I heard this year was of one confident
pair who raised their family in a handy peg bag in a Bolling Road garden.
My informant couldn’t tell me what happened to the washing during the six
weeks or so required for eggs to be laid and hatched and young to be fed
and fledged. This was clearly of secondary importance!
The next few months will see lean times for our garden birds; they will
need all the help we can give them. Your resident robin will appreciate any
crumbs of Christmas cake you can spare or, even better, a few meal-worms, a
real Christmas treat.