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Daelnet Yuletide special: A robin is not just for Christmas

Wednesday 20 December 2006

AS millions of paper robins fly around the British Isles this week - as one of the most popular images on Christmas cards - there are almost six million of the feathered variety hopping around in our gardens and fields, according to the UK's premier bird science organisation.

The British Trust for Ornithology, which has compiled the world's biggest bird population data base thanks to the work of hundreds of amateur bird watchers who file regular census reports, has put on its Santa Claus hat on to provide bird lovers with ten fascinating facts about England's national bird.

The Robin: winging its way around Britain on xmas cards
Photo: John Harding/BTO

Whilst being a bit of fun, the BTO is also asking people to help our robin population through the coming winter and, in particular, through the next breeding season which, amazingly, is less than two months away - it traditionally starts on February 14, St Valentine's Day!

The trust has issued ten robin facts that will surprise most people, including the birds' population: a pleasing 5.9 million. The other nine are:

  • The oldest recorded Robin in the UK was 8 years and 4 months when it died; it spent its whole life in and around Blackpool. A German Robin holds the European record at 13 years and 3 months.

  • The Robin is Britain's national bird and was officially declared so in December 1960 in The Times newspaper.

  • The Anglo-Saxon name for the Robin was Ruddock, by the Middle Ages Redbreast was used. In the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries the pet name Robin Redbreast came into use. The use of the plain name of Robin is fairly recent, gaining official acceptance by the British Ornithologists' Union in 1952.

  • Why do Robins sit on garden spades? The answer is simple. The Robin's preferred feeding technique is to sit on a low perch and survey an area, and then fly down to take any prey it sees. The garden spade is an ideal perch. As the gardener turns over the soil he or she exposes food such as earthworms, leatherjackets and other grubs.

  • The long distance record for a Robin was of a bird ringed on Fair Isle, Shetland and re-trapped in Southern Spain, flying a total distance of 2,600 km.

  • How did the Robin become a symbol of Christmas? A Robin first appeared on a Christmas card in the 1860's, this bird was depicted delivering an envelope. The postmen at the time wore a red tunic and were nicknamed redbreasts, hence the Robin on the card.

  • Robins have been recorded building nests in lots of odd places, these include, kettles, teapots and gardeners' coat pockets (not while being worn). One strange bird nested in the engine of a Second World War aeroplane; apparently the engine kept the eggs warm while the plane was in the air. Perhaps one of the oddest nest sites was one recorded in 1820. Two criminals were hung for mail robbery and their bodies left to hang in chains from 1769 to 1820. When they were taken down, a Robin's nest was found in the skull of one of them.

  • When it is nesting, the Robin can build a very substantial structure in a very short period of time. The fastest on record was a nest in Basingstoke. Between breakfast and lunchtime, an almost complete nest had been built in a gardener's coat pocket that had been hung up in the tool shed.

  • As the Christmas bird par excellence it seems appropriate to record the Robin which managed to imbibe too much of the Christmas spirit. Some seventy years ago Margaret Holden wrote of the household Robin which, having eaten its share of the plum pudding and brandy sauce, fell off the chair back on which it was resting. Left in a safe place to sleep off the effects, it never touched another drop.

A Christmas box for Robin Redbreast: In order to allow our most popular bird to prosper in 2007, the BTO asks bird lovers to:

  • Put up a nest box. Robins nest in open fronted type nest boxes

  • Plant a berry-producing shrub; robins will feed on berries during the winter months.

  • Provide cover in your garden. A garden with shrubs and small bushes will provide a safe haven for breeding robins.

  • Feed your robins: mealworms, peanut granules and pinhead oats are favourites.

  • Provide a regular supply of clean water and wash your birdbath frequently.

  • For more information on robins visit the BTO website, www.bto.org/birdfacts

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