As the festive season approaches and our homes brim over with seasonal clutter, the robin takes poll position peering from greetings cards, emblazoned on wrapping paper and perched on a Yuletide chocolate log or in the snowy whiteness of a Christmas cake. Christmas and the robin clearly evoke feelings of cheer, peace and goodwill.
This particular robin even spent much of Christmas 2007 inside Stable Cottage Binsted, tapping on the window in the morning to be let in, when it would sit on (and sometimes 'decorate') chair backs and laptop screens, chirruping through carols and eating off the family's hands. A reminder that life without a cat has its up-sides.
But in the bird world, the robin's merry little red breast is nothing to be complacent about, it is a warning of aggression and conflict.
Robins sing all year and that is because they hold territories all year – individually in the winter and as a breeding pair in the spring and summer. Our wintry Arundel countryside and gardens are carved up into territories approximately half a hectare in size, and these precious fragments of land are defended – to the death if necessary. Territories mean feeding rights, and robins feed by perching and watching the ground for movement – an incautious beetle scurrying past, or a worm poking its head above the surface. The red breast of an intruder into such a territory provokes the most fearsome and bloody battles of all our birds – so bad that young robins do not wear the bloody badge - for far too many would perish.
We don’t often witness the darker side of robins; we see them as a companion, a cheery bird, keeping us company whilst gardening. At this time of year a layer of fallen leaves carpets the ground, hiding any movement. Yet our industrious digging and disturbance brings a multitude of creepy-crawlies into view for a keen-eyed and hungry robin; thus, turning the soil brings these merry birds to within a spade’s length. Such fearless proximity, together with large appealing eyes, melodious song, and a cheerful red breast, may be why the robin was voted Britain’s national bird (the barn owl was second).
As Christmas approaches and festivities begin, take time to be outside, walking through the country lanes, digging the garden, clearing strangling ivy from a tree or wall, raking the remaining leaves – in short, causing a disturbance and flushing out food, for a cold winter sees a starving robin. Enjoy the melody and the company, but never forget the true meaning of the robin’s red breast.