Went out for a Boxing Day walk with the family across the fields to Madingley and back today. A beautiful day, bright and sunny, and a good 5 degrees warmer than at any time over the preceding week. Lots of redwings and fieldfares around - I wonder if we've more at the moment because the bad weather has pushed them south to us? Also some signs of Spring (catkins and pussy willow buds) alongside the remnants of snow, and berries left over from the Autumn - a strange mix of the seasons!
I've noticed that a lot of the wild roses in the 'new' wood (the Histon WI wood) have Robin's Pincushion galls on them. I've known for as long as I can remember that these are caused by a gall wasp (Diplolepis rosae), but what I didn't know is that apparently they are most common on plants that are under stress (such as from drought, waterlogging, or hedge-cutting). I wonder what particular stresses these plants are under? They appear to me to be growing vigorously and look very healthy. Anyway, whatever the reason for their relative abundance, the galls are wonderful structures to look at.
Winter is coming in, and once again a bitter dispute is being conducted along my garden fence. The opposing factions hold territories either side of the Pages Close footpath, and the area being contested is one rich in food resources – my back garden, with its bird feeding station.
The protagonists in this ongoing conflict are robins. At this time of year we seem to see them just about everywhere we look – on Christmas cards and wrapping paper, and in magazine, newspaper and television adverts. They’re portrayed as cheerful and cheeky little individuals, and it’s easy to forget the real creature behind the icon.
Robins are familiar visitors to our gardens. Whereas on the Continent the robin tends to be a shy woodland bird, here in the UK it’s a common garden resident, feeding off insects and fruit, and often becoming very tame and confiding towards humans. A village like Histon and Impington, with many good-sized gardens offering food and shelter, plus plenty of friendly humans who feed the birds, is ideal robin country.
Robins are not so friendly towards one another, though. They are fiercely territorial birds, holding individual territories from late summer through to Christmas, then pairing up and holding a territory together as a mated pair for the breeding season. Boundary disputes are frequent and can be lengthy, with lots of loud singing, posturing, and puffing-up of red breasts, leaving you in no doubt as to the seriousness of the conflict underway. Very rarely, a robin may even kill its opponent – not something usually depicted on our Christmas cards!
A good way to help the robins in your garden is to supply food. Turn over an occasional spade of earth in your vegetable patch to bring up the insect larvae they love, or put out food at a feeding station. My robins take seed from the bird feeder, but what robins like best are mealworms, live if you can stand them, or dried if you can’t, available from garden centres or from online suppliers such as the RSPB or bird food companies. Offering food is a good way to draw robins in for a closer look, and if you attract more than one, you may also be lucky enough to observe some classic territorial behaviour.
Finally, how have we come to associate the robin so strongly with Christmas? The answer lies back in the 1860s, when a robin first appeared on a Christmas card. In the picture the robin was shown delivering an envelope, a direct reference to the postmen of the time who wore red tunics and were known as ‘Redbreasts’. The rest, as they say, is history.
Just remember: if ever you see a Christmas card with more than one robin on it, peace and goodwill towards one another is unlikely to be what’s uppermost in the robins’ minds!
References for the resources used in compiling this article are available on request.
The starlings have found the bird feeder. I know they're loud, quarrelsome and messy, but I find them so entertaining on the feeder that I can forgive them the mess they make - besides, what they spill provides food for the chaffinches and dunnocks on the ground below.