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


‘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.

Such a palm-of-the-hand relationship – best forged in winter, when food is short – may well last all year. But too much emotion, perhaps, should not be invested in it. “Though so tame in taking food,” warned Lack, “the robin will not make a pet. Trusting it often becomes, but friendly never.” And a missing dimenison will be not knowing for sure if the robin on one’s hand is male or female.

Both sexes look alike, and cock and hen robins seem to judge gender more on behavioural signals and misdemeanours than simple appearance (though, once paired, they engage in more intimate recognition). Now, in autumn, both sexes are singing, and both, as solitary individuals, assert a song space and territory. So the young tomato tearaway in my tunnel could have been either.

That ornithologists now know so much about the European robin, Erithacus rubecula – and, indeed, birds in general – is hugely due to the ingenuity and commitment of an Ulsterman, James Parsons Burkitt, born in 1870 and ending at his country home near Ballinamallard, Co Fermanagh, in 1959.

Like Lord Grey of Fallodon, he had a public life – civil engineer, county surveyor for 40 years, long-term member of the Synod of the Church of Ireland – and a private passion for birds that sprung upon him suddenly at the age of 37, with no bird books and no bird friends. He decided to study the life of robins systematically (he was a mathematician), but the problem of telling one bird from another was frustrating.

He solved it brilliantly by putting metal bands of different patterns (he was colour blind) on the legs of robin fledglings and sorting out gender as he studied their life behaviour. Thus was bird-ringing born, enabling much of modern ornithology. But, as he wrote humbly to David Lack, “When I was doing the robin, I had pricks of conscience that I was really more interested in the created than the Creator.”

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