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The Nation’s Favourite

PUBLISHED: 16:11 12 November 2007 | UPDATED: 14:55 20 February 2013

Both robins and snow have a strong association with Christmas

Both robins and snow have a strong association with Christmas

The robin is one of our most enthusiastic garden birds and one with which we must all be familiar. Its habit of following us wherever we dig, looking for grubs, is particularly appealing and has led to its strong association with gardeners, and th...

The robin's song is one of its most attractive features, but in autumn and early winter this takes on an altogether more sad and melancholy tone. I find its gentle 'tsee' call one of the most reminiscent signs of these seasons. During autumn, birds redistribute themselves into their winter quarters with many birds moving south and west, though some remain in one location all year round. Once established on their winter territories, all robins, both male and female, sing to proclaim 'their' bit of garden, and they can be ferocious in defence of it.

Despite the robin's affable approach towards us, they can't always be described as being friendly to each other; the robin's attitude to its fellows can be distinctly fiery. A relaxed robin is short and looks slightly dumpy with its feathers puffed out, but bring on a rival and its whole stature changes. Stretching its legs and neck to make itself as tall as possible, the robin thrusts out its red breast and perks up its tail in the manner of a wren. Strutting around in front of a challenger, it often calls aggressively, and if the contender doesn't withdraw gracefully, a thrust of cold beak and talon is used to repel it. The robin may be slightly less territorial in winter but with more of them around - owing to an influx of birds from the north and east - disputes often occur and the bird table is a good place to observe this.

Once pairs are formed, the females sing no more. Pairing can take place as early as December, but Valentine's Day is traditionally the optimum time for making bonds. As a result, if you want to try to distinguish males from females, early in spring is the best time to do it! Structurally the two are very similar, the only difference being the shape of the brown and red on the forehead - the brown on the male's forehead is U-shaped whereas the female's is V-shaped.


The robin's song is one of its most attractive features, but in autumn and early winter this takes on an altogether more sad and melancholy tone


In winter, the priority for birds is survival, which means that they must spend their time finding food. Generally, robins eat insects, but during the cold months when insects are less active, they have to turn their attention to other sources. One plant that robins have learned to utilise is the spindle, easily recognisable in winter because of its pink fruits with seeds embedded in a bright-orange coating (or aril). The berries of the spindle are one of the most nutritious of any in Britain, though the seeds are poisonous and must pass quickly through the bird's digestive system. A good bush is worth protecting, and like a mistle thrush defending a holly tree, robins are known to drive away competitors from 'their' spindle.

The robin will gratefully accept food from the bird table in winter. One of its favourites is the mealworm and for those of you who don't like handling live bait, it is now possible to get dried mealworms, which are just as appealing (to the robin, at least!).

Winter is also the time for planning ahead as it won't be long before our garden birds will be looking for a nest site. Robins can be attracted to nest in an open-fronted box situated in a well-concealed location, though they are famous for occupying unusual nest sites, and top of the list is an open teapot with spout pointing downwards to allow water to drain away.

It is probably because of the robin's red breast that it has become so much a part of our cultural tradition. It also lends its name to other features of our natural history; two that spring to mind are 'robin's pincushion' (a gall on roses) and 'robin's flower' (now known as herb Robert, a plant with red in its stem and flower).


Pairing can take place as early as December, but Valentine's Day is traditionally the optimum time for making bonds


The association between robins and Christmas is an intriguing one. It is known that early postmen wore red jackets, which led to them being nicknamed 'robins', and this may help to explain why robins appear on so many Christmas cards.

But the robin's link with Christianity came much earlier. It is said that when the baby Jesus was in his manger in the stable, the fire which had been lit to keep him warm started to blaze up very strongly. A brown robin, noticing that Mary had been distracted by the innkeeper's wife, placed himself between the fire and the face of baby Jesus. The robin fluffed out its feathers to protect the baby but in so doing its breast was scorched by the fire. This redness was then passed on to future generations of robins. BY DAVID CHAPMAN

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