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A robin is not just for Christmas

Friday 12 December 2003

Our countryside commentator John Sheard waxes sentimental about Robin Redbreast - and explains how the bird became a symbol of Christmas

AS THE old song goes, I saw him die. I saw him die with my little eye - and it was one of the most traumatic experiences I had ever suffered, or want to suffer, in my allotment.

I'm talking about Red Robbo, a robin I named not after some figure on a Christmas card but after the hard-left shop steward who was instrumental in the destruction of Austin-Rover, and most of the rest of the British car industry, by leading strike after strike back in the 1970s.

For this robin, who became to be a close gardening chum over two long seasons, was a bully. If I stopped digging on a hard winter's day, and his steady supply of wire worms, leather jackets and small worms was interrupted, he would sit on the handle of the wheelbarrow and scold me furiously.

If I had the temerity to stop for a cup of coffee in the shed, he would fly in and out, chirruping angrily, flitting from stool to floor to tool rack and back. Get on with the job, he was saying, I'm still hungry.

Then, one day as I was tossing him a juicy grub, there was a swoop of feathers, a flash of beak, and Red Robbo was lifted into the air in front of my very eyes, clutched in the talons of a sparrow hawk. I never saw him again and I still miss him.

I can't complain because this was nature red in tooth and claw, which any countryman knows is the natural run of things, and this happened in spring when, no doubt, the hawk was feeding chicks so Robbo's ghost may still be flying around somewhere in bigger, stronger form.

But the point I would like to make is that Robin Redbreast, thankfully a regular guest in most English gardens, may look and act cocky but he is just as vulnerable as any wild creature. If you happen to be a cat owner, he is in deadly peril.

With a topical eye on the season, the British Trust for Ornithology this week issued a progress report on the robin and, thankfully, most of it is good. The bird is, in general, thriving, but that is not guaranteed to continue.

Robins, because they can become so friendly with humans, are in deadly danger from domestic cats. They like to feed on the ground in an open space - so don't leave food out near bushes or other obstacles that can offer cover for a hunting feline.

One of the reasons for the present healthy state of the robin population is that, for several years now, we have had very mild winters. This, however, cannot be guaranteed and, in the past two weeks alone, there have been three or four very sharp frosts in my part of the Dales - and cold is a killer for all small birds.

On a frosty night, says the BTO, a robin can lose 15% of its body weight simply be burning up its reserves of fat to keep warm. This means that an early morning feed is particularly important, along with water is local sources are frozen. It's also a good time to keep the cat indoors.

For those who are particularly fond of Mr Redbreast, BTO scientists have developed a special high-protein and fat food with experts from Gardman's, the specialists in wild bird feed.

You can buy this as a luxury Christmas dinner for your robin and help the trust too: Gardman pay royalties to the BTO which have totalled £175,000 over the past seven years, financing some of the trust's most important search projects. So remember, a robin is not just for Christmas!

PS: You might wonder why Robin Redbreast is the star of millions of Christmas cards. Back in the mid-19th Century, postmen wore bright red waistcoats which earned them the nickname Robin or Redbreast. Early Christmas cards depicted the postie delivering letters - and slowly, the man turned into a bird!

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