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Is that my Robin?


Most non-birders can recognise a Robin. It’s generally accepted as our national bird, although surprisingly, a survey organised by a birding magazine a few years ago, found the Blackbird to be our most popular species. Our Robins are said to be much more tolerant of humans than their continental relatives and we often find them very confiding, when gardening, dropping in close by to take an unseen morsel from disturbed ground. Some become very tame and take food from the hand and enter buildings for food when we are there. It’s our Christmas bird and features on Christmas Cards, wrapping paper and decorations etc.


The European Robin Erithacus rubecula is found from the Azores in the Atlantic to well into western Russia and from northern Norway to Morocco and the Canary Isles. Birds from northern latitudes winter from Britain south to Morocco and east to a line from Denmark to Turkey. Elsewhere the species is considered to be sedentary, not moving very far from its natal area. Our British Robin subspecies is E. rubecola melophilus and the nearby nominate (continental) E. rubecola rubicola. The British subspecies intergrades the nominate race where the ranges overlap. In the field or in the hand it is very difficult to separate any of the five or six subspecies.


Robins are found in most gardens, and we assume them to be the same birds throughout the year. But are they? I ring the birds that come to my garden and the pair of Robins that nested in an open fronted box on an ivy-covered fence, were ringed one on the left leg and the other on the right leg so that I could identify them as likely the local pair whenever I saw them. I only ring the garden in winter and soon discovered that one of them was replaced by an un-ringed bird after a few weeks. I ringed the un-ringed bird assuming that something had happened to the other one. In spring one of the pair that came to nest was not ringed. The following October I trapped the missing bird of the original ringed pair that had returned and was singing as usual on its winter territory. As before after few weeks it was replaced by a new un-ringed bird and since I have re-captured some of the “replacement” ringed birds in subsequent winters. It looks to me that the local Robin population is more fluid that is seems. This all could be coincidence and maybe the local birds just shuffle their territories around the local gardens each winter.


I nearly always count every individual of every species I detect when birding. Robins are one of the easiest to count with their ticking alarm call and familiar winsome song that becomes more complex in the breeding season. They are one of the few species where the females sing usually when holding a winter territory. The extent of breeding territories are easily definable and if a pair are not seen on a territory a short wait will find one or both usually turnup. I often walk anti-clockwise around Crookham Pools staying on the path that circumnavigates the pools. It takes me about an hour and a bit and is around 3000 steps. In spring there are about 15 to 20 breeding Robin territories in the scrub and plantation areas also in the gorse clumps if they have deciduous and bramble scrub as well. Come October though I have counted 40 and more different Robins holding quite small winter territories including out in the gorse and there are probably many more in the areas not covered out of my range each side of my route.


Where do they all come from? The easy answer is that they are from the summer pairs that have split up to form individual winter territories. More likely though, as some of our birds move south to warmer climes, they are summer visitors to the north of Europe that winter here, or some of both. It would be good to know. Reference to the BTO Migration Atlas states that ringing shows that most birds move less the 20KM from their place of ringing. There are a few recoveries that involve Norway and some in France and Spain but surprisingly few for a species as abundant and confiding as the Robin.

It is easy to overlook so called common (familiar) species like the Robin but many once familiar species are becoming scarce, some worryingly so; Chaffinch, Greenfinch, once common, are very scarce and almost unknown in recent years at my winter feeders.


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