Grand-ma’s Robin

Robins Erithacus rubecula are an endearing little birds, seemingly to be more prominent in the woodlands and our gardens at this time of year. When I was growing up as a small lad they had a direct impact on my behaviour, you see I knew something about our little red breasted friend that not everyone else did, but more about that later, right now I’d like to share with you some of what I know about robins and one or two things I’ve recently been finding out.

Robins are part of the Chats and Thrush family. Originally a robin was known as the Ruddock, which is traceable to Old English, Ruddy meaning red. Redbreast arose towards the end of the 14th century and robin derived from the Christian name Robert that came about mid-16th century.

They are a UK resident bird numbering nearly 6,000,000 breeding pairs, with 50% mortality rate for the first two years with the surviving 50% living upto 14 years..

Often there’s is the  first song to be heard at the dawn chorus and it will sing its sweet warbling song to dusk for most of the year withdrawing it briefly through its moult for a few weeks between July and August. Each bird has its own individual song which they will vary. Within it they can mimic other bird like chaffinch & blackbird. Clear alarm calls (Tic, Tic, Tic) can often be heard at dawn & dusk during the winter time.

A robin never seems to be too far from us when we are pottering about in the garden or taking a stroll through the woods, especially at this time of year. They pop up as if to announce themselves just to say hello, revisiting every other moment or so, as if a trust or bond is forming. This behaviour is known as hooking (something covered in detail on our Tracking Course)  keeping in line with you until you pass its territory.
Some would say this relationship is one way and that the robin is simply exploiting us whilst we potter in the garden or disturb the woodland litter as we walk, revealing tasty morsels for it to take advantage of. In a way they are right. Robins are repeating behaviour with us they would have done by follow our native wild boar through the woodlands up to 300 years ago. As the boar searched for food beneath the leaf litter, the robin would follow behind finding the insects, seeds and worms revealed by its action of rooting about.
Robins came out of the woodlands and into our gardens to find a similar advantage when gardening became a popular pastime,  benefiting also from the shelter and the extra food we provide for them. I like to think we get a lot out of the deal to, enjoying their company as we inadvertently help them through their day. It is easy to see how they become known as the gardener’s companion.
Each robin finds their own patch over the winter period which is why both males and females have a red breast making them indistinguishable unlike most other birds, appearing on juveniles upon adulthood. They sing in order to defend their territory from intruders and so protect their food source through this lean season. They have an aggressive nature should an intruder appear. They first expand their chest to increase the volume of the red breast feathers in an attempt to intimidate its opponent. They then take position on a higher branch to its rival, ticking to exert dominance. Most of the time the intruder submits and a conflict will be avoided. If they confront further an attack will ensue, each one trying to gain advantage over the other by striking its beak to the back of the head of its opponent, until one submits or ceases to be.

Things can become a little confusing for our little male robin when the female decides it’s time to take steps to make an honest redbreast of him. It’s not only us that have trouble distinguishing between the sexes. The female will move into the male’s territory and he will react as if she was any other intruder. The penny only drops when she doesn’t react to his aggressive antics and their relationship can take a more romantic turn. They will pair up and work together to defend their hunting ground, ensuring they have enough food through the winter. The female will start to build the nest and breeding will start come spring.

Digging a little deeper I discovered that our little robin through folk law had a rather morbid association with caring for the dead, I wonder if this grew from grave digging and the robins search for food. Its association doesn’t end there though. It was long held that to have a robin entre your home was extremely unlucky. In a time of myths tales and legends it was believed bad luck or a sign that death would follow. Maybe for this reason in a time when sadly every songbird was caged simply to amuse, the sweet tuneful warbling song of a robin subjected to such a fate was deemed to bring bad luck also.

So why did the robin have such a hold over me as a little lad? Well when I visited my grandparents, who lived several hours away, it was always an excitable time for my sister (Nikki) and I. After the warmest of greetings from them, more often than not during  a quiet moment my Grandmother would take me to one side and start to reveal some mischief that I had  been up to but thought I had got away with. Dumbfounded as to how she knew what I’d been doing without even my mother addressing it at the time amazed me. Of course this was the result of a complete scam on behalf of my mother and Grand-ma. Invariably as an inquisitive little lad I’d be doing things that maybe I shouldn’t have and that my mother would discover but choose to allow Grand-ma to address me. Upon doing so she’d point at a robin in her well tendered garden saying “a little bird told me” I fell for this throughout my young childhood.  My behaviour would sharply improve  following a visit to me by Grand-ma’s Robin.

We’d love to hear and see your wildlife stories and photos. Feel free to join and share on our group Facebook page.
Jay Jenner
Apprentice Instructor

Kind thanks to Susie Smith for the use of her excellent photographs and Emma Baldwin for her wonderful illustration.

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