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The European Robin: Britain's National Bird
The European Robin
The robin enjoys a popularity with man unrivalled by any other species. A familiar visitor at the bird table in winter and constant gardening companion, even nesting in the tool shed, it is a year-round bird. This close association with man is a special feature of the robin’s relationship with the British. Robins of exactly the same species nest over most of Europe, but a tendency on the continent to shoot and eat small birds has made robins there generally shy and retiring woodland birds.
The bird’s popularity in Britain has built up over the years and legends about bad luck being incurred by anyone harming a robin dates back to the 16th century. A Christian link has been attached to the legend because the robin’s red breast was supposedly stained by Christ’s crown of thorns. This is why the robin features prominently on the earliest Christmas cards.
Robin Nest And Eggs
Egg And Nest Information
Robins lay five or six half inch long eggs which are incubated for two weeks. Eggs generally have a whitish background and orange brown freckles.
Nests vary in size. They're made of dead leaves, grass, moss and hairs; with a few feathers used as lining.
More On The European Robin And Other British Birds
Pairing And Nesting
The adults get together as pairs in early January. As they look exactly alike, the sexes can only recognise each other by display and posture. An unmated male singing loudly in his territory will, at first, behave aggressively to any intruding robin. If the intruder is male it either retreats or tries to oust the occupier. If the new bird is a female seeking a mate, she persists in approaching the resident male, apparently unimpressed by his threats. Over a period of some hours, sometimes as much as two days, the bond between the two is built up so that they finally accept each other.
In many species this pair bonding is directly followed by nest building and egg-laying. With the robin, pairing is accomplished weeks or even months before any nesting attempt is made. During this time the birds occupy the same territory and recognise each other as mates but do not pay much attention to each other. As the weather improves the hen bird starts to build her nest, using moss and dead leaves and lining it with hair. In the natural state she may choose a rocky crevice or hollow of a tree, most often, a bank or an ivy-covered tree- usually well concealed and difficult to find.
However some robins select the most unlikely sites. One nest was found in a chest of drawers in a tool shed. The drawer was half closed and the nest at the back was only discovered when the drawer was opened.
When she begins to build the nest the female also starts to receive food from the male. This so called ‘courtship feeding’ was initially thought to be a ritual designed to reinforce the pair-bond between male and female. In fact it’s an important source of food for the female- one that she almost completely relies upon during incubation.
The clutch of white eggs with pale reddish freckling is laid, one egg each day, and the complete clutch is generally five to six eggs, although up to nine have been recorded. The incubating female loses the feathers from her breast and belly and the blood vessels just under the skin enlarge greatly. The bare skin and increased blood supply allow her to transfer the heat more efficiently to the eggs.
Rearing The Brood
After two weeks the eggs hatch out and the blind chicks, covered in thin dark down, increasingly dominate the parents’ lives with their enormous appetites. Both adults and young robins feed on insects, spiders and worms. They tend not to eat seeds and berries as a general rule. About 15 days after hatching these young robins, now weighing more than their parents, leave the nest.
Two particularly attentive parents were reported by naturalist David Lack. They built their nest in a cart which had to go on a 200 mile round trip just after the young hatched. Undaunted, the adult birds accompanied their offspring, feeding them on the way.
When the young birds leave the nest they face two or three days of great danger since they cannot yet fly well. At this stage they have a soft speckled brown plumage with no trace of their parents’ red breast. By the beginning of June they start to lose their body feathers and to develop their red breasts- growing from the bottom upwards. The wings do not moult but continue to develop until July of the next year when they reach their full size.
A Young Robin
Once the young are fledged the adults build a new nest within the same territory and, unless they are prevented for any reason (disturbance by a cat, flooding of the nest in bad weather or thoughtless hedge cutting), will raise another brood in May. During the summer for a period of five weeks, the adult robins replace their old feathers with new ones. They stay in the same area, but make themselves less obvious and less active, concealed in shrubberies and thickets. During this moult the adult robins also fall silent- the only time of the year when the robin song is not a feature of the British countryside.
As the second brood of young birds acquires its red plumage and the adult birds their replacement plumage, the autumn song starts up. The rich and fruity spring song of the males gives way to the thinner, more piping song of young and old, cock and hen, as each claims its own territory; this is kept, with a few local alterations, through the winter until pairing takes place. In times of real food shortage, territoriality evaporates as all the birds concentrate on feeding.
Competing For Space
Almost all birds are territorial. It's generally during the breeding season that each bird defends a home area, and will not tolerate any bird of the same species apart from its mate within its territory. Robins (as can be seen in the video above) are no exception, and like other song birds they stake out quite large claims by their presence at strategic song-posts. Other birds restrict themselves to much smaller areas- gannets, for example, only defend the immediate nest area.
The robin singing in your favourite tree may seem full of the joys of spring but much more important to itself and other robins, it's saying: 'This is my land-keep off.' If the message is not understood it may still have to chase off the encroaching birds- a sight often seen when disputing birds dart at each other along a lawn or hedgerow without actually making contact. It's both these aggressive flutterings and song patterns that usually prevent actual fighting. But there are always exceptions.
Although some British robins migrate each autumn, most stay within a mile or two of their birthplace. So what happens to all of these robins? If each pair of adults raises two broods with five or six young in each, there are six times as many robins at the end of the breeding season as at the start. A single pair would become almost ten million pairs after just a decade- that’s about twice the total British population of robins at present. The sad fact is that the majority of them die. As many as a million robins may be killed by cats; while owls, hawks, cars, plate glass windows and harsh winters also take their toll. Sadly, but naturally, of the original pair and their offspring, on average only one adult and one youngster survive to breed the following year. Harsh winter weather often provides the greatest danger; so millions of people who feed birds leave out all sorts of titbit's- even mincemeat and grated cheese- to ensure that ‘their’ robins are the ones to survive. This feeding also encourages the robins to stay in gardens for longer than as is normal.