There is a less polite version of this rhyme on the Internet dating back to 1744. The more genteel rhyme above has been used in nurseries as a finger-play since the 1920s and could account for the reason why this iconic redbreasted robin was chosen as the UK’s favourite bird. It topped a poll in 2015 when more than 200,000 people chose it as the country’s first national bird.
With it’s bright orangey-red breast the robin has become synonymous with the festive season and features on Christmas cards every year.
The robin’s conservation status is green, which is unsurprising as the UK breeding population, according to the RSPB, is detailed as 6,700,000 territories.
Both male and female robins have red breasts, so it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart. Their broods are brown when they fledge and the juvenile birds’ breasts are speckled with golden brown spots. Their underbellies show the promise of white, which will eventually contrast with their smart red breast after the first moult.
Robins have a distinctive upright stance as if they are proud of their red breasts and they bob about, hence the famous song ‘When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along’ by Al Jolson. How many other birds can claim to have popular rhymes and songs written about them?
Birds with a temper
Extremely territorial, robins will aggressively defend their home turf against other robins and their breasts are used in defence as warning signs and not in courtship. Up to 10 per cent of birds can be lost to injury or death in territorial battles. In summer a mated pair defend their territory (around 0.55 ha in size) and in the winter, single birds hold smaller winter territories.
The gardener’s friend
No matter what the season, robins will join you in the garden when they see you digging. These bold little birds will bob about on the ground almost within touching distance if they spy tasty grubs being unearthed.
Songs for all seasons
Robins sing all year round – sometimes late into the night in urban areas – and often they are the first singer in the dawn chorus. Their tunes vary between summer and winter. The autumn song starts in late summer after the moult when the song becomes more melancholic. The spring song, which can start as early as mid December, is melodic and powerful. It’s usually given from a high perch and heralds a time of new broods and joy with the male attracting a female with his strong voice. How such an uplifting and loud song can emanate from such a tiny bird is one of the many wonders of nature.
Robins will start their courtship as early as January in mild weather, but the normal breeding season begins in March.
Nests are normally built near the ground in nooks and crannies or hidden in climbing plants like ivy. Unlikely locations such as in flowerpots, boots, old coat pockets, sheds, greenhouses, in hanging baskets and even in car engines have been reported.
European robins don’t share the nest building, instead the female goes it alone gathering dead leaves, moss and adding a soft lining of hair. A few days before the first egg is laid, the male will start feeding the female. This is known as courtship feeding.
She lays between 4-6 eggs creamy coloured eggs speckled with reddish brown and will desert the eggs if she feel her nest has been found and is being watched.
Incubation of the eggs by the female alone takes nearly two weeks and it’s estimated that the male will supply her with over a third of her meals.
When the chicks hatch they are naked and pink with their eyes shut. They start to grow feathers within a few days and their eyes are usually fully open by day eight. Robin chicks fledge when two weeks old so three broods a year is not uncommon.
Lifespan and mortality
Robins don’t usually live more than a couple of years, but it’s reported on the RSPB website that the oldest known wild robin lived for 11 years and five months. On various other websites the current record is stated as 19 years.
Sadly, less than half of fledged birds survive from one year to the next but this high level of mortality is compensated by the large number of baby birds produced every year by each pair of robins. According to the RSPB the robin population has increased by 45 per cent since 1970.
Severe winters impact on numbers. Unless robins can feed well every day to help get them through the freezing winter nights when they use up their food reserves to keep warm, a prolonged cold spell can prove fatal.
Bird table treats
Many of us love to feed the birds in the winter and by doing this you could be saving their lives, especially when cold spells last for more than a couple of weeks. The robin’s favourite bird table treats are mealworms. Cheese, biscuit and cake crumbs, fat, dried fruit and peanuts will also be taken. Crushed peanuts are easier for robins to eat.
If you have pets, please be careful about what you feed your garden birds. Fruit and nuts can be toxic to dogs and cats. You don’t want to end up with an expensive vet’s bill because you are ‘saving’ the birds.
Fun fact: It is said that the robin became Britain’s Christmas favourite bird because Victorian postmen wore a red tunic and were known as robin redbreasts. The birds became symbols of the redbreasted messenger and began appearing on Christmas cards. Why not check your cards and see how many of them have a robin on the front.
Activity: Take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. It takes place on 28, 29 and 30 January 2022. The survey takes an hour to complete and all you have to do is record the birds you see land in your garden, balcony or local park and send your results to the RSPB. Sign up at rspb.org.uk
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