Each year I get a winter visitor to my garden. A brave warrior who is prepared to defend their territory against all comers, big or small. Considered the UK’s favourite bird – with its bright red breast it is familiar throughout the year and especially at Christmas! Males and females look identical and despite their cute appearance, they are aggressively territorial and are quick to drive away intruders.
Well known to British and Irish gardeners, the robin is relatively unafraid of people and likes to come close when anyone is digging the soil, in order to look out for earthworms and other food freshly turned up. Indeed, the robin is considered to be a gardener’s friend and for various folklore reasons the robin would never be harmed. In autumn and winter, robins will supplement their usual diet of terrestrial invertebrates, such as spiders, worms and insects, with berries and fruit. They will also eat seed mixtures placed on bird-tables.
Male Robins are noted for their highly aggressive territorial behaviour. They will attack other males that stray into their territories, and have been observed attacking other small birds without apparent provocation. Such attacks sometimes lead to fatalities, accounting for up to 10% of adult Robindeaths in some areas.
Because of high mortality in the first year of life, a Robin has an average life expectancy of 1.1 years; however, once past its first year it can expect to live longer and one Robin has been recorded as reaching 12 years of age. A spell of very low temperatures in winter may also result in significant mortality
The robin features prominently in British folklore, and that of north-western France, but much less so in other parts of Europe. It was held to be a storm-cloud bird and sacred to Thor, the god of thunder, in Norse mythology. Robins also feature in the traditional children’s tale, Babes in the Wood; the birds cover the dead bodies of the children. More recently, the robin has become strongly associated with Christmas, taking a starring role on many Christmas cards since the mid 19th century. The Robin has also appeared on many Christmas postage stamps. The association with Christmas probably arises from the fact that postmen in Victorian Britainwore red uniforms and were nicknamed “Robin”; the Robin featured on the Christmas card is an emblem of the postman delivering the card.
In the 1960s, in a vote publicised by The Times newspaper, the Robin was adopted as the unofficial national bird of the UK. The Robin was then used as a symbol of a Bird Protection Society.