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There’s more to this Christ­mas card cover star than meets the eye

The cute star of many a Christ­mas card re­ceived dur­ing the next cou­ple of weeks is fiercely ter­ri­to­rial dur­ing au­tumn – but why is this the case?

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,


The real rea­son Robins fol­low gar­den­ers is for the food we un­earth

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.

De­fend­ing its 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.

Puz­zling be­hav­iour

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

A Robin singing on an au­tumn morn­ing may well be mu­sic to our ears, but it can be very dan­ger­ous for other Robins nearby

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 adult­feath­ered 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 it 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.

As an­nounced in Bird Watch­ing mag­a­zine last month, Ur­ban Birder David Lindo has launched a pe­ti­tion to get the Robin adopted as the UK’S of­fi­cial bird – visit

BATH TIME As with all birds, Robins re­quire un­frozen fresh wa­ter through­out the year

THRUSH ROOTS Speck­led ju­ve­nile Robins be­tray their roots as small thrushes (aka chats)


HARDY BIRD Robins are among our most hardy small birds, though ex­tended pe­ri­ods of cold can be fatal HOLLY AND THE ROBIN The Robin’s as­so­ci­a­tion with Christ­mas is a long-stand­ing one

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