Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Week 6: Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

The Robin was @SpeciesofUK from 6th to 12th January 2013.

Robins are the UK's third most common bird, coming behind the wren and the chaffinch and ahead of the blackbird and house sparrow.1

It is many people's favourite bird, and immediately recognisable even to people with little interest in wildlife.

The Robin
[Source: Ramin Nakisa]

The robin is extremely common in the UK. There are around 5.9 million territories. It’s most common in England and Wales, south of a line around Yorkshire. It rarely migrates. A few birds travel to Spain or Portugal in the winter and a few arrive from northern Europe.

The robin has historically been considered a member of the thrush family. The thrush family is split into true thrushes (blackbirds, song thrushes etc) and chats, which includes the robin. More recently some authorities have placed the robin in the separate "Old World Flycatcher" family.2

Distinctive Features

The robin is small and brownish, with a biggish head, short, thin bill, and long, thin legs. It also has a narrow faint yellow wing bar, which is easiest to see on the juveniles.

Most famously, the robin has a red ‘bib’ covering the face and breast. Both male and female have this.

A juvenile robin does not have a red bib. Instead its whole plumage is finely spotted, betraying its relation to the thrush. The juvenile robin has a partial moult after 6-7 weeks, slowly losing its spotty plumage.

Adult and Juvenile Robin
[Source: Petirrojo (Erithacus rubecula marionae)]

Robins usually look rather sleek, but sometimes they appear rounded and compact. Sometimes this is because they have ruffled up their feathers.

Compact-Looking Robin[Source: Marek Szczepanek]

On the ground, robins hop rapidly with their feet together and wings drooped. They cock their tail and appear to ‘courtsey.’

Robins move in fits and starts. A robin will perch motionless, make a sudden movement, and then be perched motionless again. You can see a video of this.

The call of the robin is a short hard ‘tick.’ When it’s nervous, the tick is protracted into a ‘tick-ick-ick-ick.’

The song of the robin usually starts with thin drawn out notes and then speeds up. No two verses are the same. It can be heard pretty much the whole year. Some say that the robin’s song is sad and wistful in the autumn and becomes stronger and more vigorous in the winter. There is an audio clip of the song on the RSPB website.

Robin Singing
[Source: nl.wikipedia]

Robins are one of the birds that takes part in the famous spring “dawn chorus,” surely one of the greatest wildlife events in the UK, alongside blackbirds, song thrushes, wren, greenfinches, and great tits.

Take a moment to listen to a wonderful clip of the dawn chorus.

Robins in the Garden

Robins prefer a mix of dense vegetation and open areas, for example woodland, parks, forest edge or, very frequently, our own gardens.

Robins are wary but not shy. Chaucer called it the ‘tame ruddock.’ They’re known for following gardeners around and grabbing unearthed worms.

Robins hunt from a perch, standing very still. They eat worms, beetles, snails and flies. A common, and iconic, perch for a robin in the garden is a spade handle!

Robins particularly like mealworms and if offered in the garden will even, after time, take these from an outstretched hand.

Robin with Mealworm
[Source: Philip Heron]

In winter, the robin will also eat elder, bramble and rowan berries and some seeds, so they can become a common sight at bird feeders too. They can develop a sweet tooth, taking cake, especially fruit cake, and uncooked pastry.3

If eating from a bird feeder, robins will sometimes take the seeds while hovering like hummingbird, rather than landing on the feeder’s perch. Watch an amazing slo-mo video of this.

Robins take a particular dislike for blue tits, coal tits and dunnocks in the garden, which they chase away from food.

Territories and Mating

The robin is extremely territorial and guards a territory all year round. Unusually, it is one of the few birds that takes up a territory even during the winter.

During the winter, both male and female will hold individual territories, with the female traveling farthest to establish hers. Robin fights and scuffles become common as winter approaches and the males, females, and fledged young all compete for their territory. You can watch a sobering video of a robin fight.

Robins have elaborate courtship displays. The female will ‘beg’ for food and the male bring it to her. You can also watch a video of this.

By January, robins have started to pair up. They will remain together until the moult the next autumn.4

The robin starts to nest in March and the first eggs appear in April. The female builds the nest, using leaves, moss and grass. Robins nest in a variety of places, usually close to the ground, where there is a crevice, such as a hollow stump or a bank. They have also found man made objects convenient for nesting, including shelves, wall crevices, watering cans and boots.

Robins have 4-6 eggs, incubated by the female for about 13 days. Both parents feed the young, unless the female starts another brood in which case the male continues alone. The young robins start to fly after about 13 days and become completely independent 16-24 days after that.

Robin Chicks
[Source: Tom Oates, 2009]

Adults moult once a year between June and Sept. The moult is one of the few times in the year when robins become more shy and retiring and their song is rarely heard. In July/August, during the moult, robins can be seen resting on branches with heads drooped, apparently nodding off.

Robins in Folklore

In medieval English, robins were called “ruddocks,” related to the word ruddy or red. The name robin came later, from Old French.5

Other names for the robin are bob robin, bobby, cock robin, ploughman’s bird, redbreast, robinet, robin ruck, ruddock, tommy-liden.

St Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow, is said to have revived a robin that was killed by his fellow students. For this reason a robin appears on the Glasgow coat of arms.

In English folklore, the robin is married to the wren - Cock Robin and Jenny Wren. Perhaps this is because they are the two birds most often seen on their own in the garden.

          Cock Robin got up early.
          At the break of day,
          And went to Jenny's window
          To sing a roundelay.

There is a famous nursery rhyme ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’ in which all the other birds help to orgainse the robin’s funeral:

          Who killed Cock Robin?" "I," said the Sparrow,
          "With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."

Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Redbreast and the Butterfly’ asks how the robin can chase another of nature’s beautiful creatures, the butterfly:

          What ail'd thee Robin that thou could'st pursue
          A beautiful Creature,
          That is gentle by nature?
          Beneath the summer sky
          From flower to flower let him fly;
          'Tis all that he wishes to do.

The robin’s association with Christmas began in Victorian times when postmen wore red waistcoats and were nicknamed ‘robins.’ Images on Christmas cards showed robins bringing letters. They have remained a Christmas card fixture ever since.

Strange but true...

Robins will sing all through the night in streetlit areas. This can lead to them being mistaken for nightingales. No-one knows for sure why robins in particular do this, but it is thought that they may be especially sensitive to the light. The BBC has a video of night-singing robins.


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