Created | Updated Nov 30, 2008
The robin (Erithacus rubecula) is widely associated with Christmas, and is a very popular image on Christmas cards, wrapping paper and decorations. It is difficult to know which came first: the robin's general popularity or its association with Christmas. This stems from Victorian times when Christmas notepaper showed a robin delivering the Christmas post; which in turn was delivered by postmen nicknamed 'robins' or 'redbreasts' due to the bright red tunic that they wore.
Popular Garden Bird
The robin1 is common throughout Britain, and is probably the most easily-recognisable garden bird, which many people would be delighted to have visit their bird table or bird bath.
Watching the gardener is an occasional pastime of this cheeky bird. They will perch nearby, watching a gardener dig the ground, bringing insects or juicy worms to the surface. When the dug area is left unattended, the robin investigates, often perching on the abandoned fork's handle, before hopping down to the ground, searching for earthworms and insects to eat.
Robins can also be found in parks, woodlands and hedgerows as well as in gardens. A favourite food of the robin is mealworms. It is said that with time and patience, you can have a robin eat of out of your hand using mealworms. They will happily eat insects, berries, earthworms and enjoy seeds and sweet titbits from the bird table.
Identifying a Robin
The adult robin has a red breast and face, bordered by grey and mingled with white underneath and a brown upperpart and tail. It has a wingspan of 26cm, and a length of 14cm. It is classed as a songbird, often singing until late evening, or even into the night, which can lead to it being mistaken for a nightingale. Males and females are virtually indistinguishable.
The plumage of a juvenile robin is dull speckled brown all over. This soon changes after the first moult2 when the robin's adult plumage grows through.
Birds follow nature's calendar, rather than our conventional calendar. If the winter is mild, their 'spring' may start as early as January, but the normal breeding season starts in March, when the birds pair up for the duration of the breeding season, which could last until July.
Robin nests are neat and cup-shaped, and are made of moss and dead leaves, lined with hair. They are made by the female, and are usually at ground level, often in natural undergrowth, or sometimes in discarded items such as kettles and buckets. However, the list of known nesting places is endless - in walls amongst ivy, in empty flowerpots and containers in sheds as well as in well-sheltered open front nestboxes.
It is important not to disturb the nest while it is being built or used, as this may cause the robins to desert it.
Courting and Breeding
Breeding time is the only time of the year in which robins will pair up and tolerate each other, fiercely defending their nest and joint territory against other robins, as well as other birds.
An important part of the courtship is the male's activity of supplying his mate with food. Courtship feeding will supply her with about a third of her total food intake during the nest-building and egg-laying cycle. The amount of food over this time is vital and can contribute to the clutch size.
After laying a clutch of three to six pale blue eggs at one per day, the female robin will spend most of the next 12 to 15 days on the nest until the eggs hatch. After the eggs hatch, she may eat some of the eggshells for extra calcium, the rest she will remove from the nest.
When first hatched the chicks are naked and completely dependent on both their parents for food and warmth. At three days of age the first feathers begin to grow and at five days the eyes begin to open. By the time the chick is eight days old, the eyes will be fully open, and rows of feathers will be apparent on their backs and flanks. More feathers quickly grow through, with flight feathers being the last to grow at 13 to 15 days when the chicks become fledglings; it will be another couple of days before they can fly.
For the next three weeks the fledglings are cared for by their parents, with the male taking on the main role of carer while the female prepares for the next brood. On average, robins have two broods a year, sometimes three and rarely will they have four broods. Once the last brood of fledglings have flown the nest, the robins will go their separate ways.
The mortality rate is high: only about 60% of eggs result in fledglings; of those many do not survive their first year. The adult robins survival level is low, with a life expectancy of around 18 months.
Although many people believe the same robin visits their garden year after year, it is very likely these are different robins, with the same colouring and temperament, who have moved into an unoccupied territory. As with almost everything, there is the exception. One ringed robin holds the record of eight and-a-half years old, as the longest-surviving robin.
They are territorial birds that will vigorously protect their feeding area from other robins, as well as other birds. They are likely to be at their most aggressive during winter time, when food is scarce. However, it is not unheard of for robins to share a territory in summer, when there is plenty of food.
There is a misconception that robins are more active in the winter months. Apart from midsummer, when they are seen and heard less frequently while they are moulting, they are active all the year round. As there are fewer birds about during winter, robins tend to be more conspicuous.
Beware of the Cat
The robin's main predator is the cat. Although every robin killed by a cat is one less of these delightful birds, with several million breeding pairs they are in no danger of disappearing.
Rhymes and Folklore
Little Robin Redbreast sat upon a tree,
Up went Pussy-Cat, and down came he,
Down came Pussy-Cat, away Robin ran;
Say little Robin Redbreast: 'catch me if you can!'
Little Robin Redbreast jumped upon a spade,
Pussy-cat jumped after him, and then he was afraid.
Little Robin chirped and sang, and what did pussy say?
Pussy-cat said 'Mew, mew, mew'and Robin ran away.
The robin is associated with good luck, bad luck, life and death according to English folklore. If a robin pecks at your window, or enters your house, there will be a death in the house. During the 16th Century it was implied that if a robin found a human corpse it would cover the corpse with moss, leaves and flowers.
This rhyme suggests a belief that if you injure or harm a robin bad luck will befall you.
Hurt a robin or a wran
Never prosper boy or man
When you see the first robin of a new year, you should quickly make a wish, before the robin flies away. If you fail to do this, you will have bad luck during the year.
Robin Redbreast or Robin Hood?
Although this rhyme is often associated with the robin, there is a belief that it is in fact a British folksong relating to the death of Robin Hood; and the offers of assistance that followed, reflecting the admiration of this legendary figure.
'Who killed Cock Robin?' 'I,' said the Sparrow,
'With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin.'
'Who saw him die?' 'I,' said the Fly,
'With my little eye, I saw him die'.3
Wildlife and Countryside Act
According to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it is an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird. It is also an offence to intentionally take, damage or destroy the eggs, young or nest of a robin while it is being built or in use.
Award and Records
In 2004 the The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) held a Feed the Birds Day. Visitors to their website were asked to vote for their favourite garden bird. Of the approximately 25 species in the running, the robin was the clear winner with 43% of people naming the robin as their choice. In joint second place with 9% were the blackbird and blue tit.
The robin also won a Gold Medal Award after being voted Scotland’s favourite bird in the RSPB Scotland Centenary Awards.
And in 1960 the robin was officially adopted as Britain's National Bird.
In 1999 a pensioner in Kent, UK held the Guinness Book of Records record for the largest robin Christmas card Collection. She had 10,677 different cards which she used to decorate her home at Christmas.
It would appear the robin has some competition this Christmas, in the form of the Bluethroat4 (Luscinia svecica). A rare relative of the robin5, which normally migrates for the winter, was spotted in a nature reserve in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.
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