Another Life: The robin, a feathered Exocet of the garden

Garderners welcome this shy bird’s services in eating bothersome flies and midges, but they’ll struggle to make friends with it

Illustration: Michael Viney

Illustration: Michael Viney

Sat, Aug 23, 2014, 01:00

‘Into the world of the robin,” wrote David Lack, “we cannot penetrate” – this in his book The Life of the Robin (1965), which was anyone’s best shot at it. This, too, despite the general affability between robins and people in these islands. In most of Europe the robin remains a shy, woodland species that avoids the haunts of man and his guns.

I thought of Lack the other morning, as a robin and I exchanged glances in the polytunnel, my leafy, crystal pavilion sunk among summer trees. The robin had finished singing at its high perch on a crop bar above the tomatoes – a full territorial chorus, sweet and chirpy. I felt honoured, as one does, to be so favoured, or ignored.

I had also, until that morning, welcomed the robin’s services in keeping the tunnel clear of bothersome flies and midges, darting like a feathered Exocet to snatch each dark speck buzzing at the roof. The bird entered and departed through the mesh of beachcombed fishing net screening the open doors. This was to permit an essential flow of air (and bumblebees) while shutting out the blackbirds, notorious garden thieves.

Unfortunately, as I had now been reminded, robins, too, will attack tomatoes at the right shade of ripening, not through any combative response to redness but for the softness and sweetness of low-hanging fruit. And although one robin is welcome to the odd small ‘Pantano Romanesco’ it is not free to sample half a dozen every morning, eviscerating them like a seal at netted salmon. So now there are finer, but still breathable, nets, draped around the tomatoes as if against mosquitoes instead of one adolescent robin with a first fluff of rufousness beneath its chin.

It might well be thought that, after all these years, I should have robins eating out of my hand. The late Éamon de Buitléar, after all, was adept at this, with film to prove it. And I have long possessed the diplomacy for robin-taming spelled out by Lord Grey of Fallodon. He was the foreign secretary who led Britain into war with Germany in 1914 and is widely remembered in this anniversary year for his lament to parliament that “the lamps are going out all over Europe”.

The Charm of Birds

But Fallodon was also a countryman and bird-lover. And in his book The Charm of Birds (1927), which went through 10 editions, he laid out the strategy for seduction of the robin. This is achieved first by a tempting scatter of crumbs and then by successive manouvres with mealworms (the larvae of a cereal beetle, Tenebrio molitor, offered by pet shops). These are offered first in a tin lid laid on the ground, then, kneeling down, in the lid with hand underneath and finger tips protruding. “This,” confided his lordship, “is the most difficult stage, but robins will risk their lives for mealworms and the bird will soon face the fingers and stand on them.” The rest, sans tin lid, is a slow elevation to the vertical.

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