Robins: the good, the bad and the ugly
Former Goodies star, writer and broadcaster Bill Oddie is one of Britain’s best-loved ornithologists. As well as hosting many prime-time wildlife programmes over his career, he is also an ambassador for numerous birding and conservation societies.
Why do you think the robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird?
It shows how egocentric we humans are really: we only like things that like us! The robin is the garden bird that comes to you – quite literally. Plus many people think they’ve got the same robin for years on end; I hate to disillusion you, but I don’t think you have! It’s a curious fact about the biology of robins that females and males are virtually indistinguishable. Not only do they look the same, but unlike most songbirds, the female also sings. So I can understand why people might think they’ve got the same robin coming back.
Something I don’t think everyone realises is that some robins aren’t even faithful to one country. We get a fair number from Scandinavia and the continent. So though it’s been voted Britain’s favourite bird, your garden robin may not actually be British!
Plus many people think they’ve got the same robin for years on end; I hate to disillusion you, but I don’t think you have!
How much interaction do you have with robins?
I’m fortunate to have robins permanently in my garden, so I get to see their lifestyle close up. I’ve got a whole series of plaques around my garden, saying ‘Robins 2006’ and ‘Robins 2007’ because they never nest in the same place twice. Once, I found a very young robin in my shed that could barely fly – it just managed to flutter up to one of the beams and stayed there for two days. It was such a beautiful little thing. Apart from being all plump and speckled, they’ve also got those little tufts of fluff which make them so endearing.
I’m always excited to see when robins have had a reasonable year, because the mortality of youngsters is very high. It’s lovely seeing the juveniles growing up, learning to fly and seeing the red breast appear before your eyes. The other side of robins, of course, is that they don’t like one another!
Tell us more about their darker side…
Well, they don’t like anybody except the person feeding them. Presumably they like their partner for a couple of weeks but they don’t exactly hang around. And they don’t like their kids for long either. So, most of the time – and I think people who voted for them need to understand this – they don’t set a good example. They are crazy possessives! As soon as you’ve gone past that breeding stage, they’ll be chasing one another. Particularly come autumn, they will not sit and share food. In the pecking order, there’s not much that will take on robins– even great tits and chaffinches stand back.
“Well, they don’t like anybody except the person feeding them”
So they’re intolerant of other birds too?
They’ll intolerant to everything. Even when it comes to their own kids. Once you’ve got past the stage of “Okay, you can fly now”, they seem determined to boot them out. I don’t think they have a magnanimous bone in their little bodies!
The other day, I was watching telly and suddenly there was a great scuffling outside. It was two robins locked in mortal combat. One had pinned another on its back and was pecking away at its face and scratching with its talons. There were feathers all over the place. I think it was only because I got up that they stopped and flew off – probably to carry on elsewhere.
Do you think robins deserve to be our national bird?
I personally put a plea in for the red grouse, which is actually indigenous to Britain. I thought it would be a very good idea if the red grouse were our official national bird, because then it wouldn’t be so easy for people to hunt them. But they didn’t go for that.