Everyone's festive psychopath - the robin

23 December 2020 | Posted in Michael Blencowe , Birds
Everyone's festive psychopath - the robin
Robin James Duncan

By Michael Blencowe

Senior Community Engagement Officer

Americans have chosen to align themselves with a mighty eagle. India have elected the elegant peacock. But we've voted an antisocial, murderous ball of anger as our national bird. So what is it about the robin that us Brits find so endearing?

Well that famous orange-red breast, a flaming flash of feathers in a bland back garden of blackbirds, sparrows and starlings is certainly striking. Those disproportionately large eyes give robins a cute 'face' but they're useful to a bird which hunts for beetles and worms under bushes in low light levels.

They're certainly cheeky little beggars. As we kneel weeding in the mud they'll hop along hoping for a castaway worm. Elsewhere in Europe robins actively avoid human contact and inhabit dark forests where they follow feeding boars as they dig in the soil. So in Britain robins view us as big pigs in gardening gloves.

Surely the greatest coup that the robin has pulled off is cornering the lucrative Christmas market, especially considering the only other bird we associate with Christmas is beheaded and stuffed into an oven at gas mark 4. This Christmas connection is linked to the red tunic plumage of Victorian postmen. Robins were pictured carrying the post on the earliest Christmas cards and since then the have joined Rudolph, snowmen and Santa himself as Christmas celebrity A-listers.

Attractive, friendly and festive - everyone loves a robin. Well everyone it seems apart from other robins. Robins hate other robins.

Robins are highly territorial and, once invisible boundaries have been established, robins will rule their kingdom like feathered Fuhrers. They'll sing their washing-line war cries from dawn to dusk or patrol the garden noisily tick-tick-tick-ing like a timebomb and cocking their tail threateningly. Female robins are just as tyrannical and will also sing and scuffle, unusual amongst female birds. Robins are equal opportunity aggressors and will fight other birds no matter what colour; but when a robin sees red it sees red. Robins will peck, scratch, batter and kick any other robin that puts as much as a feather across their line. Behind that red breast beats the black heart of a ruthless killing machine. Fatalities are common.

For the past few months this front lawn turf war has intensified but around Christmas there are subtle signs of a ceasefire. The song of the robin becomes more hopeful and in the bleak midwinter something remarkable happens; robins unexpectedly and temporarily fall in love. For a brief period courting couples can be seen feeding alongside each other. As we enter the New Year this peace agreement ends and it's back to brutal business as usual. But these Christmas couples will re-unite to form a family in the spring.

For robins, Christmas is a time for peace, hope and worms. Here's hoping you have a similar Christmas full of peace and hope. As for the worms? I'm sure we'll all open a whole new can in 2021

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