Robin - Bird Song

07 April 2020 | Posted in James Duncan , Bird Song
Robin - Bird Song
Robin © Vanda Pellins

By James Duncan

Learning and Engagement Officer

In this series of blogs I'm going to be exploring the wonderful world of bird song (with calls thrown in for good measure!)


2# Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Next up, the Robin, recently voted the UK's most loved bird in a national poll - claiming a staggering 34% of the overall vote. It also makes up a huge component of the UK bird population with approximately 7 million territories. It's without doubt one of our most confiding birds, associating readily with people wherever there may be food. They quickly seize the opportunity to snaffle insect larvae and worms dug up by their human companions and of course they're often happy to accept handouts (literally). Interestingly, outside of the UK, Robins behave quite differently and are an extremely shy bird of thick woodland - their exposure to hunting has perhaps made them a more retiring species. We may love the Robin, but there's something about them that belies their general demeanour - they're viciously territorial. The life of the Robin is on average fairly short, with mortality amongst birds particularly high owing to fierce clashes. Disputes typically begin with males singing at each other, trying to get a higher perch in order to display their red breast (a threat display) more prominently. If escalation occurs, injury or death may well be the result. Unfortunately for other bird species, Robins don't necessarily stop at attacking their own kind. Dunnocks, for example, may frequently be the recipient of this. 

Perhaps the most familiar feature of the Robin is that it sings for the majority of the year (except when moulting). Part of the reason links back to their confrontational tendencies, Robins keen to protect the occupation of their hard-won territories. Their song may sound wonderfully mellow to us, but it is essentially a 'war cry,' warning other Robins to stay well clear. Their repertoire in spring tends to be somewhat richer and more varied, but of course the competition from other songsters is much stronger and it's relatively easy to overlook the Robin's relaxed style. In winter they're one of the very few birds singing, so their representation as a bird of Christmas seems highly appropriate (though this is not the reason). Seasons aside, Robins are not even confined to singing in the day. It's likely a Robin will be the first heard in the dawn chorus and perhaps the last to stop at night. Artificial lighting has played a huge role and has certainly increased the nocturnal activity of urban birds. Undoubtedly they are frequently confused for Nightingales (a summer visitor) for this very reason. The renowned hit, 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square' probably hinges on this bit of incorrect ornithology.

Listen to the song in this video -

The song itself often consists of a number of high pitched, drawn out notes which quickly descend in pitch, but increase in speed. It has a wistful, but perky manner and flows nicely, even allowing for the pauses between verses. The faster bits tend to include sections of soft trembling and squeakier notes. Ultimately the song has a procession of new verses, repetition not a trait. Some verses are quick, some are slow, some are soft, some are loud and there's something nostalgic and entirely contemplative about the way the Robin sings.

Here's an extended version of song -

The typical call of the Robin is a familiar sound, consisting of a dry, but somewhat 'elastic' "tic." Though it can be singular it tends to be repeated frequently in a short series of notes - this is especially so when either waking or going to roost. When Robins are nervous or agitated (particularly when caused by ground predators) this tends to be even more protracted, heard as a long series of rapid notes.

Listen to this call below -

Another call that will undoubtedly be heard from the Robin is much thinner in quality and more subdued. This is the alarm call, transliterated as "tseee." This is much more likely to be given in response to an aerial predator and perhaps the most fascinating aspect is how hard it is to locate the direction of sound. You could say the Robin in this case is a rather wonderful ventriloquist. This has obvious benefits for avoiding detection from predators. It's high pitched and consistent in its delivery, with a real purity of sound. Perhaps most interestingly this call is almost certainly understood by other bird species and therefore provides mutual benefits for survival.

Listen to this call below - 


Comments

  • clare:

    08 Apr 2020 20:26:00

    Lots of birds in our area and I often wake early and hear them. Its great to be able to hear them more with less traffic. Brighton

  • Ruth:

    18 Apr 2020 10:16:00

    Thanks James, this is going to be one of my go-to birdsong blogs! I love trying to identify birdsong, but never quite know what I’m hearing – this will help loads.

  • Lindsey COOKE:

    06 Jun 2020 16:03:00

    Like many other people during Lockdown, I have focussed much more on my love of the Nature. Over recent weeks, I’ve been able to observe the behaviour of Robins as we have a pair nesting in the ivy near a seat which is higher in position than the nest (I have kept well away from this nest). I have recently observed that, when a parent, (could be male or female as I can’t tell the difference) armed with caterpillars etc in its mouth and intent on delivering these to its developing chick, perches before delivery on the Philadelphus Tree and observes me sitting a little nearer its nest, it waits for me to look away before it completes its delivery. If I sit further away it delivers its collection of food to its developing offspring happily. My Husband thinks I may start talking to them next ! Would be interested to know if this behaviour is possible…..I’m quite often wearing sunglasses when I observe this but not always.

  • Kate Hilditch:

    28 Feb 2021 18:26:00

    When my Robin is waiting beside me as I am digging or have a few mealworms he sings very quietly, almost like chortling, he doesn’t sing out with an open beak. It’s a very pretty calming noise as if he is trying to communicate, sometimes he feeds from my hand and once flew into my pocket looking for treats!

  • Michelle H:

    02 Mar 2021 02:40:00

    I live in Brighton by Preston park and have been hearing Robins all night recently, I’ve been using an app called ChirpOMatic which has been great. I recently read an article about robins in particular singing at night especially in urban areas because traffic can be too loud for them in the day, has anyone else heard this? I’m writing this now at 2:30am, so interested to know if anyone else has heard them sing so late!

  • Bex Elliott:

    25 Apr 2021 17:29:00

    Hello. I have a pair of robins nesting in my shed. One of them is becoming quite unafraid and will take worms and grubs from around 2ft away from me, as long as I sat still. Today my robin was above me in the apple tree – another robin appeared in a different tree, and sat there quite still for a few minutes. My robin then started making a strange chirupping call. The other robin answered, dipping as he/she did so. I just wondered what this call/display means?

  • James Duncan:

    05 May 2021 09:44:35

    Robins are of course renowned as one of our most fiercely territorial birds. Generally, any posturing and presentation of the red breast serves as a threat display and may well escalate into violence. I suspect that the two Robins in your garden were actually undertaking something quite different – courtship feeding. ‘Courtship feeding’ is probably a bit misleading as it describes behaviour when a male offers food to his mate, but occurs most frequently when actual courtship is finished. Most courtship feeding occurs during egg formation, laying and incubation and provides a valuable source of nutrients for females. Generally, a female Robin solicits for food by uttering a sharp, monosyllabic call (perhaps the one you heard?), often lowering her wings and quivering. The dipping may have been an effort to conceal the breast which often serves as a ‘red rag to a bull.’ This behaviour is almost identical to that of fledgling Robins begging for food. Close to the end of egg incubation, female Robins may receive almost all of their food from the male.

  • James Duncan:

    05 May 2021 09:45:04

    Robins are of course renowned as one of our most fiercely territorial birds. Generally, any posturing and presentation of the red breast serves as a threat display and may well escalate into violence. I suspect that the two Robins in your garden were actually undertaking something quite different – courtship feeding. ‘Courtship feeding’ is probably a bit misleading as it describes behaviour when a male offers food to his mate, but occurs most frequently when actual courtship is finished. Most courtship feeding occurs during egg formation, laying and incubation and provides a valuable source of nutrients for females. Generally, a female Robin solicits for food by uttering a sharp, monosyllabic call (perhaps the one you heard?), often lowering her wings and quivering. The dipping may have been an effort to conceal the breast which often serves as a ‘red rag to a bull.’ This behaviour is almost identical to that of fledgling Robins begging for food. Close to the end of egg incubation, female Robins may receive almost all of their food from the male.

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