Angry birds - Robins may look adorable, but you wouldn’t want to cross one. These territorial birds will defend their patch ruthlessly. Disputes are often settled by song and body language. If that fails things quickly get physical and fights to the death can occur.
History repeats itself - Gardeners are familiar with tame robins following their fork to glean worms and other invertebrates unearthed by digging. It’s thought this echoes ancestral behaviour of robins following wild boar and now-extinct aurochs that once shared their woodland habitat.
Chemically minded - Robins use unwary ants and millipedes as a kind of insecticide. Seized in the bird’s bill, the hapless invertebrate unleashes its defensive chemical weapons. The robin then rubs these compounds all over its feathers to get rid of parasites like mites and ticks.
The locals are friendly - Accepting human presence readily, our UK subspecies is tamer than its continental cousin. This variance in behaviour makes it easier to identify more reticent migrant visitors from Europe, Scandinavia and Russia.
Making a red breast of things - The robin’s so-called ‘red breast’ is actually orange. But this wasn’t recognised as a named colour in English until the 16th century when fruit of the same name started to be imported – so red was as close as anyone could get. The same holds for redstarts and red kites.
Song birds - Competitive male robins often have sing-offs where they duet loudly with each other. Hen robins also sing, although not quite as energetically as the boys and only in the run-up to the breeding season.
On the up - Populations of many bird species have been in worrying decline in recent decades – the house sparrow is just one notable example. The robin has bucked this trend, with UK numbers increasing by 45% since the 1970’s - and still rising today.
Seeing red - Once their blood’s up, robins won’t just attack other live members of their species. They’ve been known to take out their wrath on dead birds, models of robins, bunches of red feathers, and even red beards.
What's in a name? - In the 17th century it was popular to give familiar birds human names like Jenny Wren, Margaret Pie, Jack Daw and Tom Tit. Over time ‘Robert Red Breast’ became ‘Robin’.
Ticking off - Famous for their cheerfully mellifluous song, robins make plenty of other vocalisations. There’s a loud, almost metallic ‘ticking’ alarm call, plus a high-pitched ‘seep’ that’s also delivered when agitated.
All the better for seeing you with - Look into a robin’s big eyes. They’re perfectly adapted for a bird that spends much of its time in the dark, dingy understory or woodland and hedgerows.
Thunder birds are go - Thor, the Norse god of thunder was reputedly fond of the colour red. Hence the robin came to symbolise the coming of stormy weather. The bird’s fiery breast colouring also had connotations in Celtic mythology, where the killing of a robin would bring death or loss by a blaze.
His and hers - You’d be hard pressed to spot the difference between a female robin and a male. On average the male is just a little bigger and heavier – but in the breeding season a female carrying eggs could weigh more than their mate. Other subtle cues can include the shape of the peak on the bird’s head when viewed from above.
Relatively speaking - The robin was once thought to be a kind of thrush. However recent genetic studies clump the European robin together with the flycatchers and chats. Have a look and listen to a nightingale – a chat family member – and the resemblance is clear.
Body talk - There’s plenty of highly stylised body language to observe in the breeding season. Tails up, bowing, and tail and head straight up are classic threat displays to rival robins. Throat feathers can also be fluffed up to make birds look bigger.
It's partly Greek to me - The familiar European robin’s scientific name is erithacus rubecula. Erithracus comes the from Greek ‘erithakos’, a generic reference to a small bird. Rubecula comes from the Latin ‘rubeus’ – meaning a bramble – and the suffix ‘cola’, an inhabitant. Of nine European robin sub-species, ours is erithacus rubecula melophilus.
Tuning up - In autumn and winter you might see a robin singing ‘under its breath’, with a gentle fluttering of the throat but little sound. Called a sub-song, it’s behaviour often exhibited by young birds practicing their repertoire prior to the first breeding season.
Well rounded - In common with many other woodland birds like blue tits and great tits, robins sport relatively short, rounded wings. This profile lends itself to rapid manoeuvrability in densely forested environments.
Red flag to a robin - That red breast is used as a territorial flag by adult robins. Juveniles don’t develop their own for several weeks after leaving the nest. Why? To minimise the risk of being attacked by their own parents post fledging.
Quality accommodation - The size of a robin’s territory is related to the quality of their habitat. Upland woods are less amenable, hence you might only get 10 pairs per square kilometre. More appealing lowland woods may accommodate as many as 300 pairs in the same area.
Seasonal delivery - The robin has been a cover star of Christmas cards since Victorian times. The red garb of postmen from that era even earned them the nickname ‘robins’.
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