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 -