Nature Notes for 1st January, 2015- WNS
It was all very shocking! I was peacefully eating my Christmas Day breakfast, keeping an eye on the bird feeders outside the window, when I noticed one – then two – robins! No Christmas truce here. First it was a stand-off with much bobbing and tail-flicking, then a sudden dart and chase. None of these tactics worked: they were evenly matched – so it was war. They fell to the ground in a claw-to-claw tussle. Finally one bird withdrew but I guess is still somewhere nearby keen to take over a territory that includes two well-stocked bird feeders. I was surrounded by Christmas card robins, some realistic, some cartoonish, all gazing benevolently down at us. And outside – mayhem!
Our robin in the UK, though of the same species as its European counterpart is actually very different in behaviour. On the Continent robins are shy birds keeping to their woodland habitat; here they learned to trust us and happily extended their range to our gardens and parks, endearing themselves by the cheerful way they accompany us gardening, perch cutely on garden spades and will even take food from our hands. But they are naturally aggressive to other robins and in experiments have been observed violently attacking not just a decoy stuffed robin but even just a bit of red cloth. My Christmas visitors were behaving entirely naturally: this hotly fought dispute was quite literally a matter of life and death. Having found a territory and maintained it in the Autumn by singing, my resident robin had established his right to enough food through the winter. He couldn’t afford to lose it.
You’ll see similar behaviour in other garden birds. The last remaining berries on our hawthorn and cotoneasters are being picked off by dark-beaked blackbirds, a wave of incomers from the north. The resident cock blackbird, resplendent with yellow bill and golden eye-circles, can do little to prevent this, though he launches a number of sorties. It reminds me of a mistle thrush, a fine big bird, that established squatters rights to our neighbour’s holly tree in the Autumn, intending to keep the whole berry crop for himself – to see him through the winter. They were cleared out in less than an hour by a flock of hungry redwings and fieldfares, newly arrived from Scandinavia.
As a new year approaches and Winter begins to bite, more and more birds will be driven to use our bird feeders. It’s important to keep them clean, topped up, and perhaps – to avoid too many arguments – to have feeding stations in two or three different parts of the garden.
May our New Year be a peaceful one!
Photo by Marek Szczepanek (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons