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A closer look at the life of the Robin, a very familiar bird to everyone but sometimes we don't always appreciate some of the complexities of it's everyday life and struggle for survival.         Maurice Baler

Gardeners Friend

Every garden has got it's own Robin, they have this special relationship with man which goes back to the days of the wild bore roaming the forests and the robins following them around looking for the insects and grubs disturbed by the bores foraging through the undergrowth. With the decline of the forests and the bore the robin turned its attention to man as he tilled the fields, and then the cottage gardens.  Today if you go out in the garden with a spade it won't be long before you will be watched at close quarters by a robin. This trust of man says quite a lot about our attitude to wild life in this country as the continental robin is far less trusting towards man. A long term association can be built up with robins as there is practically no migration and once a male has set up a territory it is usually sedentary, but when breeding is over the female will have to find a new territory, often quite locally, but will not necessarily return to the same male robin as they do not pair for life

I like to use the word trusting rather than tame when referring to the robins in my garden.

It is quite easy to gain the confidence of a robin so that it will feed from your hand, this can be done at any time of the year, except late summer when they are moulting, but spring when they are feeding their young, is the best as they become much boulder when searching for live food to meet the needs of up to five very hungry youngsters. The expression 'Robins will sell their soles for mealworms is very true, especially if you use live ones. If you have got a place where the robin normally feeds start off by throwing a few mealworms on the ground and move away a short distance, very often they will be watching you and will soon be down to investigate. Once they get used to coming for the mealworms place them on the ground in a small try or shallow dish, and each time you do this stay a little closer. As you get close either bend down or kneel on the ground and leave your hand outstretched on the ground until you are actually touching the dish. When the robin has gained enough confidence you can get rid or the dish and place the mealworms on the ground with your hand getting close each time until it will take them from your hand without actually standing on it. Once you have got to this stage it won't be long before it will come onto your hand and finally you can walk out into the garden and it will come and land on your outstretched hand.

I have also used this method with great tits and last year had six birds that would come and feed from my hand.  I am waiting to see how many will remember and come again this year when the breading season starts.

I must admit it is a truly great feeling when you know that these wild birds have that much trust in you.

My Friendly Robin

One of my many Great Tits

A rather Special Robin                                                                                                                                         A Curious Robin

There was one robin that will always have special memories for me. Five years ago I was working in the garden and was being followed around by a robin, nothing unusual in that, but this one was a bit agitated and was not picking up anything, not even meal worms when I gave them to him. I then noticed that he, I said he because I confirmed later that it was a male, could not close its bill, the best he could do was a 5 mm gap. He had possibly flown into a window or been in a fight. I hastily made up a feeding device, a flat hedgehog as I called it, a thin piece of wood with veneer pins sticking through by about 15 mm and spaced about 20mm apart. Onto these pins I speared meal worms and small round pellets of mixed food. It did not take long before the robin was investigating and trying to pick up the food. He soon became very adapt at placing his bill over the pins and taking the food and meal worms, this continued for about three months by when the gap in his bill closed to about 2 mm. and he was able to pick up food from the ground without my assistance. The default position for its bill is shown in the photo on the left, this did not hamper him too much as the following year he paired up and successfully bread, and did so for the next four seasons. One early morning last year when I went out through the back door there was no robin sitting on the gate into the back garden waiting for his meal worms. After about only half an hour I had the feeling that something was wrong, unfortunately I was right as he never turned up again. He left quite a gap in my enjoyment of the of the birds and garden for some time, at least I had the pleasure of its company for five good years

        After the Autumn Moult

Enough anecdotes, now to the year of the robin!  

Autumn is probably the best time to catch up with the Robin's year, just after they come out of moulting and are in the splendour of their new plumage. Prior to this most robins hardly ever sing and are less visible probably because during the moult, with less feathers, they are more venerable to prey and spend a lot of time in the cover of a bush or hedge. If you do see one in full moult without any tail feathers you can soon appreciate their vulnerability

 

                                                                                                                                                                                  Robin Singing in Winter            

 VIDEO - Robin Singing in Winter    All robins both male and female take up individual territories in the autumn which they will defend from intruders by chasing them off and singing from high vantage points around their territory. This song is most noticeable at the beginning of autumn but they will keep singing right through the winter, although it is a pleasure to hear, it is really a threat song "Keep out of my territory or else". The song that I like best is what I call the quiet, or sub-song, it is very quiet and tuneful and can only be heard from a few feet away coming from the cover of a small bush or hedge. It may be practising its louder song but I like to think it is just singing for its own pleasure as it sometimes goes on for up to 15 minutes at a time. The robin is one of the few birds that can be heard singing at night by the light from a street lamp.

Tension in the Male Robin                                                                                                                                     A Bonded Pair of Robins

The female will hold a territory of her own until around Christmas time and will then enter the territory of the male and despite being chased by the male for a few days she gradually becomes accepted by the male if somewhat grudgingly. The photo left, shows the male in a  partial threat posture which the female seems to be completely ignoring.  They eventually seam to overcome their inborn territorial instinct and coexist together for the remainder of the winter.This year however I have noticed, on my early morning dog walks, at least three pairs of robins that seem to have got together as early as the end of October. This could be due to the very unusual patterns of weather, the seasons have been all over the place this year.

                                    Robin Threat Display                                                                                                            Robins in Territorial Dispute   Video

There are sometimes boundary disputes, as last year, when during the breading season I had three pairs of robins visiting my garden at the same time for mealworms, four of them were confident enough to feed from my hand. Most of the time disputes are settled  by showing off their red breasts to the best advantage in a series of threat displays and usually ending up with the territory owner chasing off the intruder. Although most disputes end up without any serious harm there are occasions if an intruder is very persistent the robin is capable of making quite a vicious attack                 

Courtship Feeding                        

Courtship feeding, where the cock feeds the hen, usually starts at about the same time as the hen begins nest building. The hen will mimic the posture and calls of a young bird being fed, by crouching down, quivering her wings and making a repeated high pitched note. Even if she is standing close to food she will beg for the male to feed her, this feeding will continue while she is incubating the eggs and for a while when brooding the young.         

One of the benefits of this courtship feeding is that it creates a strong bond between two otherwise solitary and territorial birds , the other benefit is  that the hen gets  additional food  when  most needed  during egg  laying and incubation. I also like to think of it as male grooming, ,training  up the male to assist in feeding the young.

              Collecting Nest Material -1                                                                                                                              Collecting Nest Material - 2

Nest building , by the hen alone , usually starts about the end of March depending on the weather. It starts with a bed of dead leaves and is made from moss and lined with hair , usually built in a space in a bank or wall or even on the ground. This years first nest in the garden was some 3 metres high up an ivy covered tree trunk, so no chance of good photos. I had high hopes for the second only 2 metres from the kitchen window but this got no further than the dead leaves stage.      I will have to try again next year.

              Food for the young ones                                      Fledgling Robin

Both parents feed the young at the nest and in the first few days the male will bring food to the brooding hen and she will sometimes pass this on to the young. They will continue to feed the fledglings for about three weeks after they have left the nest by which time they are becoming more independent and starting to find quite a lot of food for themselves.

The fledglings have no red colouration at this stage, they are just a spotty brown colour.

                    Juvenile Robin - 1                                                                                                                                       Juvenile Robin - 2

When they leave the nest the young fledglings have a spotty brown appearance which makes for good camouflage in their early days. It is not till the juveniles start to get their true adult feathers that they take on the recognisable red appearance.

In a warm early spring there is often time for the pair to successfully start and complete a second brood, the female may sometimes leave the male to feed the first fledglings while she builds the second nest and when these are ready to hatch the male will again join her in feeding them. By this time the first brood are usually capable of looking after themselves. .When the nesting period is over the pair will split up and take up territories of their own, which they will both defend, until the time comes round for pairing to take places again, but not necessarily the same pair as before. The cycle will then begin all over again.

              Robin in Full Song                                                                                                                                                      A Watchful Robin

Now when you next see a robin singing at the top of his voice in the garden you will not just see a bird singing but will see the robin acting out part of its complex routine for survival in what is quite a harsh world  of nature.

     If you see a robin looking up to the heavens take a look yourself and more likely than not you will see a buzzard, sparrowhawk or kestrel there, just one more hazard to avoid for survival.

 

    View my new YouTube Video 

  THE SECRET LIFE OF THE ROBIN - Late Summer to Early Spring

The film takes a close look at the changes in life style of robins from a solitary bird in late summer to a closely bonded pair in early spring. It includes a two minute sequence of the female robin entering the males territory and his reluctance to accept her. 

This is an ongoing project and hopefully more material will be added as it becomes available.

I have not included any nesting photographs as I do not want to cause any disturbance to the birds, I will only do this if an opportunity arises if I get a suitable nest in the garden that can be photographed without any disturbance whatsoever.

Thank you for viewing, I hope that you enjoyed the journey through the robins year and that you will get more pleasure from your own garden robin.   

Maurice

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