By Ian Parsons
It won’t be long before the species that won last year’s Vote for Britain’s National Bird will be staring at you from the corner of your living-room. The Robin, quite possibly hopping around in the sort of snowfall we rarely see in December, and maybe even sporting a Santa hat, will be the star of a good many of the Christmas cards that you receive.
We’ll talk about the reasons for that seasonal association later, but, in fact, Robins will already have been stealing the show for several months. There are many indicators that summer’s over, autumn has been and gone and winter is here.
From the leaves of Ash trees turning yellow, to the sloes on the Blackthorn darkening to a deep purple and the Swallows and Martins gathering on the wires in ever-increasing numbers, nature heralds the turning of the seasons in several different ways. But for me, nothing beats the autumnal and winter song of the Robin.
Winter singing is unusual in British birds, but the Robin’s melancholic song is heard throughout the country as the temperatures drop. With other birds quiet, it is a great time to really get to know the song of this common bird. It is a melodic, fluty song, beautiful and sad at the same time. With everything else quiet, the beauty of the song seems extra special.
So why are they singing? Well, as in the spring, it’s to establish a territory, but, unlike in spring, they’re not singing to attract a mate to it. This territory is not for sharing. The Robin is well known for being a belligerent defender of its territory, and in early autumn they’re at their most aggressive as they compete with one another to establish the ownership of their autumn and winter quarters.
Robins defending their territory
It is estimated that 10% of all adult Robin deaths are caused by other Robins, and it is when the birds are establishing their autumn and spring territories that these fatalities are most likely to occur. A Robin singing on a cold morning may well be music to our ears, but it can be very dangerous for other Robins nearby.
If the birds are not looking to attract a mate to their territory, why are they expending energy in defending one? The obvious answer that comes to mind is food. The theory goes that the bird is defending a territory that will be able to provide it with sufficient food to see it through the non-breeding season. It sounds entirely plausible, but unfortunately it isn’t the case.
The territory in early autumn is full of food, so you’d expect the territory holder to be more relaxed when it comes to defending it, but the opposite is true; the birds are more aggressive, constantly driving off intruders.
Then, when the weather turns colder in December, and food is harder to come by, you’d expect the territory holder to be extremely vigilant and aggressive, yet they become more relaxed, allowing intruders to feed openly within the area.
In extreme weather, several Robins can be seen feeding in the one spot. This suggests that the setting up of territory in the autumn has nothing to do with food provision.
The males of the previous breeding season’s territories tend to remain resident within them, although the boundaries may be slightly modified. The female will sometimes also defend a territory near to the breeding one, but they are more likely to move away.
In fact, the word ‘move’ doesn’t really do this justice; a better word would be migrate. We don’t tend to think of our humble Robin as a migratory bird, but in the east of its range it is a true migrant, with Scandinavian, eastern European and Russian birds all leaving their breeding areas for milder winter ones.
But there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to what the female British Robin does in the late autumn; some stay where they are, some move short distances and others migrate to Europe, going as far as southern Spain.
I live both in Britain and Extremadura in central Spain, and from the end of September onwards, the Robin population in Extremadura goes through the roof. These birds have to come from somewhere and at least some of them will be birds that bred in Britain.
The puzzling behaviour of Robins
I often wonder whether the Robins I see on my Extremadura patch in the winter are the same Robins I see on my British patch in the spring and summer! They start this southerly journey at the same time the birds that are staying behind start their autumnal song.
Those that head for some winter sun in Europe, then return to their breeding areas by the beginning of March.
It’s not that unusual for the males and females of a migratory species to winter in different areas from one another. Waders, in particular, exhibit this behaviour, with the Black-tailed Godwit being a good example, but the Robin is unusual in that it is (mainly) just one sex, the female, which migrates, while the males stay resident.
How or why this behaviour has evolved is something of a mystery. Perhaps in the past, Britain’s population of Robins was more migratory than today, and the female behaviour now is a throwback to that time, but that still doesn’t explain why just the females do it, and even then not all of them.
One thing for certain is that there will be a reason – small birds are not going to expend vast amounts of energy flying hundreds of miles on a whim. It goes to show that we have lots to learn when it comes to bird behaviour, even for our most familiar species.
The other puzzle is why the males expend lots of time and energy in establishing and defending a territory in the autumn. If it’s not for breeding purposes, or food, what is going on? There are a number of theories, but none are conclusive.
In the period just before the onset of this autumnal territorial behaviour, Robins are hard to find. We tend to think of the Robin as just being there, but if you keep notes on the birds you see in your garden or on your patch, you may well have noticed that in the second half of the summer these common little birds are not so easily seen.
Robins undergo a comprehensive moult in July, and when they do so they become far more reclusive in their behaviour. As they are vulnerable to predation while they are moulting, they spend much of their time skulking in thick cover. They even stop singing in an attempt to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
With the moult finished and the Robins resplendent in their new plumage, they emerge from the shadows and once again become the bold bird that we all know. At this time, the day length begins to noticeably shorten and the temperature can start to drop, both factors corresponding to the conditions found in spring. Is it possible that the Robin’s physiology is tricked into thinking that spring is here again?
It is a theory put forward by many, and similar behaviour is seen in other species in different parts of the world at the end of the summer, but if this is so, why is it that the Robin is virtually unique among British birds in this?
Another theory relates to the fact that the Robin is not the cute, friendly bird of Christmas card fame, but a rather aggressive species that readily enters into disputes. Could it be that after spending several weeks skulking and hiding away while it went through the moult, the Robin feels the need to reassert itself over its neighbours and the now adult-feathered first-year birds?
By singing and defending a territory, it could be re-establishing the pecking order, so to speak. I don’t know the answer, but what I do know is that I am glad they do it, as listening to the song of the Robin when the rest of the bird world seems to have fallen silent is definitely one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Why is is the Robin a Christmas card star?
One theory is that, at the time the sending of Christmas cards first became popular, in the 1860s, postmen wore bright red uniforms, and were so sometimes called ‘Robins’ – early Christmas cards include designs in which the bird bears an envelope in its bill.
But, there seems to have been an earlier association between the bird and the Christmas period, and Christianity more generally.
One fable holds that when the baby Jesus was in his manger, the fire lit to keep him warm blazed up very strongly. A brown bird placed himself between the fire and Jesus, fluffed out his feathers, but got its breast scorched by the fire, and the Robin was the result.
Another story is that a Robin pulled a thorn from the crown of Christ while he was on the cross, and that it was Christ’s blood that created the bird’s red breast.
Robins also crop up in the stories of several early British saints, such as St Mungo (also known as Kentigern), who is said to have restored one to life, so the religious links extend back into the early medieval period and perhaps beyond.
But maybe the reason is much simpler. Their red breasts mean Robins are noticeably colourful at the darkest, dullest time of year, and their habit of singing throughout autumn and winter embeds them in our consciousness just as the festive season approaches – perhaps the cards are our nod to their role in lifting our spirits when we need it most.
Scientific name: Erithacus rubecula
UK numbers: 6.7 million territories
Habitat: Woodland, hedgerows, parks
Diet: Insects, worms, fruit and seeds