A seasonal extract from The Robin: A Biography by Stephen Moss, published by Square Peg and out now.
It is often said that robins on the continent are far less tame and confiding than their British cousins. Lack suggested that there were good reasons for this: the properties of our European neighbours do not usually have gardens, so continental birds tend to either stay put in the woods for the winter or head south. He also pointed out that in southern Europe – especially Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Malta – robins are, like other songbirds, regularly shot for ‘sport’, or trapped for the pot. But the writings of French authors such as Cuvier and Buffon suggest that even if continental robins were not quite as tame as their counterparts on our side of the Channel, they were just as easy to catch.
Another reason for the tameness of British robins is the continued presence of wild boars on mainland Europe. So while continental robins followed wild boars around in order to obtain the invertebrates produced when their tusks turned over the soil, in Britain – with boars hunted to extinction during the medieval period – they followed people instead. Why other small birds such as thrushes, blackbirds and dunnocks did not become so tame is a bit of a puzzle: it may go back to the robin’s large eyes. In dark forests, at dawn and dusk when boar mainly feed, I suspect the robin was the only forest bird able to see the prey exposed by their foraging.
As all gardeners know, as soon as you take out your spade and begin digging, a robin will miraculously appear and begin to feed. This habit was noted as early as the 1820s by John Clare in his poem ‘Home Pictures in May’:
And sweet the robin spring’s young luxury shares Tuteling its song in feathery gooseberry tree While watching worms the gardener’s spade unbars. . .
Another of Clare’s poems, ‘The Woodman’, suggests that this relationship began long before the rise of gardening:
The robin, tamest of the feather’d race Soon as he hears the woodman. . . Around his old companions fearless hops And there for hours in pleasd attention stops. . .
Our enduring fascination with this wild bird’s tameness goes all the way back to the story of St Serf in the sixth century. Periodically through history, others have tried to tame a robin, usually by offering it food. One famous ‘robin-tamer’ was the early-twentieth-century Liberal politician and statesman Sir Edward Grey, the man who poignantly declared, on the eve of the First World War, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.’
Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916 – the longest continuous period served by anyone in that office – Grey found respite from the pressures of his job by watching birds. After he retired, in 1927, he published a slim volume, The Charm of Birds, which became an unexpected bestseller and remains a classic of early nature writing.
When he could, Grey would spend time either at his home near Itchen in Hampshire, or on his large country estate at Fallodon, in Northumberland. To amuse himself, he would try to hand-tame the local robins – and usually succeed. With practice, he found, he could do so remarkably easily:
The bird is first attracted by crumbs of bread thrown onto the ground; then a mealworm is thrown to it; then a box... is placed open on the ground with mealworms in it. When the bird has become used to this, the next step is to kneel down and place the back of one hand flat upon the ground, with the box open on the upturned palm, and the fingers projecting beyond the box. This is the most difficult stage, but robins risk their lives for mealworms, and the bird will soon face the fingers and stand on them. The final stage, that of getting the bird to come on to the hand when raised above the ground is easy.
This works better in winter, Grey went on to explain, when the robin is likely to be more desperate for food:
The whole process may be a matter of only two or three days in hard weather, when birds are hungry; and when once it has been accomplished the robin does not lose its tameness: confidence has been established and does not diminish when weather becomes mild and food plentiful.
Like many acute observers, Grey even learned to recognise individual robins by tiny distinguishing features on their plumage. One of the very first he managed to tame had a distinctive white feather on his right wing, making him easy to pick out from the rest. Oddly, this never disappeared, even when the bird moulted. ‘White Feather’ survived longer than most robins: Grey first encountered him in the winter of 1921-22, and followed his life cycle all the way through the following three years, until their last meeting, on New Year’s Eve 1924:
On the last day of the year. . . he came to me at the usual spot; after that I never saw him again, and his place was taken by another robin. I searched in the hope that White Feather might only have been driven farther west; but there was no sign, and I fear that there had been combat to the death.
The author and naturalist Seton Gordon took a memorable photograph of Grey with one of these tame robins perched jauntily on his hat. Grey’s affection for the robin was enhanced by the fact that, even before The Charm of Birds was published, he was rapidly losing his sight. So the song of the robin – especially in autumn and winter, when few if any birds would be singing in the grounds of Fallodon – gave him great comfort in his later years.
In another characteristically thoughtful passage, Grey mused on whether there really is a difference between the robin’s spring and autumn songs, or whether this is a false impression, caused by a change in our own feelings and emotions at these very different times of year:
In estimating the difference between spring and autumn songs allowance must be made for the human mood... In autumn, when... the sun is getting lower and the days shorter, our own minds are attuned to a minor key, and we find it in the robin’s song. On a warm April day, when sap is rising and we are full of anticipation... we judge the robin’s song differently... And so I ask, listening to a robin in spring and comparing the impression remembered of the autumn, ‘Is it the song or is it I that have changed?’
Almost a century after Sir Edward Grey learned to tame robins, the nature writer and hedgehog-enthusiast Hugh Warwick did the same. Having challenged Andrew Lack – the ornithologist son of David – to prove that robins were equal to his beloved hedgehogs, Hugh tried out a different technique perfected by Andrew’s mother (and David’s widow) Elizabeth, using cheese instead of mealworms.
To his surprise, after several days of enticing the robin with lumps of best Cheddar, this worked. As he reflected afterwards:
I might not be able to pet my robin – but there is something very special about the impossibly light bundle of energy that will sometimes spend a few seconds on my hand. I have been lucky enough to be able to share the delight – my wife, children and friends have all had a grin-inducing moment of wildlife connection. For me this is so much more fulfilling than watching the celebrities of the charismatic mega-fauna prancing around in HD on my TV.
The Robin: A Biography is out now and available here.