Posted 20th Nov 2014
No other garden bird is as synonymous with winter and the Christmas season as the robin, says Tom Waters at the RSPB, as he tells us more about one of our favourite festive birds
The robin (Erithacus rubecula) is one of our favourite garden visitors in the UK. Throughout history even the name Robin has been synonymous with cheerful mischief makers. Robin Goodfellow, who was a spirit of the green wood, Robin Hood and his band of merry men and Robin redbreast, the bird that sings throughout the winter. The robin is easily recognised; a plump bird with a bright red-orange breast, face, throat and rosy cheeks edged with grey. The sole purpose of a robin's red breast is in territory defence: it is not used in courtship. A patch of red triggers territorial behaviour and although cute in appearance the robin is highly aggressive and will attack birds in their territory. Despite this, the cute bird is loved throughout the country so much so that there are people who feel that they have a personal relationship with their robin – chatting to it, whistling to it and even trying to feed it from the hand when they are in the garden. Males and females look identical, and young birds have no red breast but are spotted with golden brown flecks.
Despite what many think robins actually sing nearly all year round. This is due to the importance of holding winter territories. Only for a short period in late summer while they are moulting and inconspicuous, do robins stop singing. Like a Christmas carol choir, both males and females are melodic singers. The birds' name comes from the Anglo-Saxon Rudduc for the ruddiness of the breast, and in the bitter cold of winter our cheeks can match this little fellows colour too.
Many modern Christmas traditions can be traced back to the Victorians and it is they who we have to thank for the robin appearing on Christmas cards, Yule logs, baubles and Christmas jumpers all over the world – even in countries outside of the robin’s natural range. Victorian postmen delivering cards at Christmas time were nicknamed Robin Redbreasts for the red waistcoats they wore and, in 1898, the first RSPB Christmas card pictured this cheeky chap.
Robins in winter – The north doth blow and we shall have snow and what will poor robin do then? With the mild autumn we have had the birds have plenty of natural food: berries have been plentiful and insects have been in abundance. But in winter make sure to put out mealworms, suet nibbles and even grated mild cheese. The robin also has a sweet tooth; crumbled cake, biscuits and uncooked pastry make a helpful sweet treat for the birds. Robins can be seen on the fringes of the garden, maybe around a vegetable patch or an allotment or foraging around paving cracks.
Listen out for the call
There are a range of functions to a robin which includes angry alarm calls when a predator is in the area and contact calls used by juveniles to keep in touch with mum and dad and the female with her mate. The alarm call can be a thin drawn out ‘tseep’ for other birds that pose a threat and a sharp ‘tic’ for the sight of a cat. The robin's song is one of the most endearing characteristics. It is distinctive and cheerful and valued nearly as much as the nightingale’s rich tones.
To discover more about the nation’s favourite bird in RSPB spotlight: Robins by Marianne Taylor (published by Bloomsbury) or join the RSPB’s online community www.rspb.org.uk/community where you can discuss what they eat, where they nest and how to give nature a home in your garden.
By Tom Waters
RSPB Images courtesy of the RSPB: Ray Kennedy, Chris Gomersall