It was in the late summer and autumn of 2016 that the relationship with our garden robin truly began to take on a new depth. When we were tidying the flowerbeds it would often alight next to one of us, often within no more than a couple of feet. And if you flicked a small worm gently in its direction, it would hop briefly closer to collect the morsel before retreating to a safe distance.
We, like many others across the country, take great pleasure in watching the comings and goings of the birds in our garden on a daily basis and share in the recognition that of all the species that visit, the robin is the most naturally confident in the presence of humans. It is perhaps this confidence, it’s bright red breast and and the association since at least the advent of the Christmas card to our nation’s yuletide celebrations that saw the robin voted Britain’s favourite bird in David Lindo’s 2015 Poll.
A desire to understand more about the Robin and its endearing behaviour led me track down a copy of ‘The Life of the Robin’, a beautiful little work on bird behaviour published in 1943 by David Lack*.
It is a tiny gem of a natural history book, my copy produced in complete conformity with the authorised economy standards, hinting at the austerity of the times but also showing that the natural world held a place in people’s hearts even in the most extreme of circumstances.
The book became a guide through our year, helping us to understand the behaviours we were watching with ever more attentive eyes and ears.
One photo and passage hinted at the possibility of robins feeding from the hand, leading to the purchase some live mealworms, described in the book by Lord Grey** as part of his prescribed method to tame a robin.
And so, over the course of a few days late last year, we gradually tempted our red-breasted friend to come first to a tin of juicy mealworms and then eventually direct to the hand.
It was a thrilling process, each mealworm taking us a gradual, tiny step forward in the development of trust, until the almost imperceptible touch of tiny claws alighted on my outstretched hand and a broad, uncontrollable smile spread across my face.
Each day we repeated the process and over the weeks and months that followed the daily thrill of feeding the robin was shared by virtually all that visited.
Even in the coldest of the weather last winter our robin remained the only one that visited our garden, though we were aware of two neighbouring robin territories, one on each side of us. Each bird had found a particular song post from which to advertise their territorial claim and dominance and the three would sing, often in turn, each phrase from one individual followed by a pause for another bird to respond.
Through those initial months, the robin remained firmly an ‘it’ as we had no apparent way of identifying gender – robins being a species where the individual sex of a bird is not immediately obvious to the human from its plumage or indeed size – but we were aware, come the spring, that a second bird was now venturing into the garden, indicating that a pairing had taken place and a new shared breeding territory had been established.We saw less of our robin in that time, though on one occasion when it did re-appear, we noticed missing feathers on the left side of the chest. This made us suspicious that this might have been caused during extended spells of incubation at the nest. But it it wasn’t until we witnessed, in the quiet shadows of the honeysuckle the robin pair in the act of mating, that we were finally able to establish that ‘it’ was in fact a ‘she’. By our reckoning, of the course of the spring, the pair had possibly 3 brood attempts.
How successful each had been was impossible to tell – we only found one definitive nest site in next door’s workshop – though we were confident that we saw one fledging from an early brood being fed by both parent birds in the garden. We saw another from the last brood, who was tolerated in the garden territory long after the male had left. In fact it wasn’t finally driven out until our female was well into her summer moult and it came on a few occasions to feed on mealworms at the backdoor.
As spring turned to summer our female skulked in the undergrowth or under the wood pile, tentatively appearing to take a proffered worm before retreating to the shadows. As her full set of feathers returned she became more obvious again and would gently sing a whispered song from our apple tree as we enjoyed warm evenings in the garden.
As I started to put this post together earlier in December, three robins were holding winter territories, including our female who retained possession of the garden despite some robust take-over challenges that we had watched back in November. But when the weather turned and I hadn’t seen our bird for a couple of days I began to wonder at possibilities for her disappearance. Returning to Lack’s Life of the Robin it suggested that females make the decisions regarding sexual selection and inspect and assess male’s and their territories, pairing when they find their chosen mate. As this process begins as early as December it was entirely possible therefore that our female had gone in search of improved or different gene stock to the males surrounding her own territory and that our relationship would come to an end as the year headed towards its close. This realisation came with a tinge of emotion, a motif encapsulating the circle of ending and beginning that felt profoundly appropriate for the time of year and the writing of the story of our relationship.
A day or so later, as I stood in the garden, melancholically contemplating my conclusions and watched a flock of fieldfares working the arable fields in the distance, a twitch of movement in the dry brown twigs of the honeysuckle caught my eye and a robin dropped into view. Was it her, returned from prospecting adventures further afield, or a new bird, making tentative first steps into a new territory?
I rushed quickly inside to grab a handful of mealworms, eager to find out the answer. I returned and gently proffered my hand in the bird’s direction, held my breath and waited……
* David Lack was a significant figure in British ornithology in the 20th Century, publishing a number of books and pushing forward our understanding of evolutionary biology. Further reading on Wikipedia can be found here.
** I strongly suspect that the Lord Grey mentioned in Lack’s text is Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, who served as Foreign Secretary from 1905-1916. Further reading on Wikipedia can be found here.