Thursday, 14 December 2006

A Christmas tune

The dark gloom of these December mornings is softened somewhat by the wistful tunes of singing robins. While all our other songsters have fallen silent, the robin continues to sing in defence of its territory right through the winter months. Holding a territory is incredibly important for a robin and it is only during the most severe of winter weather that the pattern of territories may break down altogether. Even the females may set up their own winter territories, often close to where they will breed the following season, and proclaim ownership of these through song.  The winter song contains certain phrases that denote territory ownership and these also appear in the subtly different breeding season song. What are missing from the winter song though are the sexual phrases used in establishing a bond with a mate.

There is a strong tradition associating this confiding and popular bird with Christmas and it is always interesting to see how many Christmas cards arrive with a robin on their cover.  In fact, robins first appeared on cards soon after the custom of sending them at Christmas first took off commercially back in the 1860s. David Lack, writing in his famous book ‘The Life of the Robin’, noted that the use of the robin on Christmas cards probably stemmed from similarity of the robin’s red breast to the bright red uniform worn by Victorian postmen; many of the early card designs showed a robin with an envelope in its mouth.

Despite its confiding nature, and our enduring affection for this bird, it is worth noting that the robin can be a particularly quarrelsome species. The territorial song and red breast are important components of a display used to deter other robins from trespassing on an established territory. While the song proclaims “this is mine, stay away”, the red breast is used in more direct encounters. During a territorial dispute two robins will begin by singing at each other, with the territory owner attempting to sing from a higher perch than the intruder. This enables him to show off his red breast to maximum effect. If, for some reason, the territory holder finds himself positioned below the intruder he will throw his head back, again to maximise the amount of red breast on display. Such displays are usually sufficient to see-off the intruder but, if not, a ferocious fight may break out. The red breast is so important in this pattern of behaviours that a robin will even attack a bunch of red breast feathers. So, as the season of goodwill approaches – with the robin as its symbol – it is worth remembering that our beloved national bird has another side to its character.

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