This is not really a seasonal piece as I wrote it last February but the robin I am talking about is the European robin familiar on English Christmas cards. As Englishmen have travelled throughout the world they have found many birds which have reminded them of home and named them robins, the similarities are mostly superficial.
It is still too cold for comfort but the outside is gradually becoming less of a place to hurry in from with coat collar turned up and I linger on sunny days to notice crocuses. When I do I hear the robin singing, as though he too is welcoming the coming spring. Actually he started singing his spring song in December, I just didn’t come out to hear it, and he will carry on until the middle of June when he takes a month’s break before starting on his Autumn song which he will sing through until December again. I say he, but in the Autumn the hen bird will often sing as well, though not always and she nearly always stops as soon as she has a mate in the spring.
So if it is not to welcome spring why does the robin sing? There are two answers, one is the age old male game, let the ladies know that you are there and available, the other is to defend territory, you think it is your garden, the robin knows it is his. This is demonstrated for me at my local railway station where each of three small groups of trees spaced at equal distances around the platforms represents the limit of a robin’s territory. If any one of the three robins which hang out here should choose to sing the other two turn up pronto to let him know that he has come far enough. They are, in their way, more zealous than the railway company in warning off trespassers. The songs the robin sings include notes well above the range humans can hear so that it probably sounds different to him, in fact it probably sounds different to different people as the range we can hear varies quite a bit from one person to the other and gets narrower as we get older, but the robin can still recognise the song we hear, even a fair imitation will bring him running to find the intruder. Less known is the robin’s ability to imitate us, there are a number of quite credible reports of robins that have learnt to repeat words or phrases, perhaps not quite so unbelievable when you realise how easily they are tamed. If you can bring yourself to handle the meal worms anglers use for ground bait you can teach your robin to feed from your hand in a matter of a few days in winter weather, and not much longer in summer, meal worms are caviar or strawberries and cream to a robin. Once he has learnt the trick he will not forget it either and you are likely to find a robin on your shoulder any time you go outdoors. People even report that when they pair up in spring the tame robin will bring his new spouse to meet his benefactor and you soon have two tame robins.