When robins arrive you know it is well and truly autumn. Our green spaces fill up with the happy sound of their territorial calls, as each bird stakes out a territory where it will spend the winter picking insects off leaves and grubbing up worms and other soil-dwelling minibeasts.
Why do we suddenly start seeing robins at this time of year? Where have they been and what have they been up to?
Some birds, like our resident Spanish sparrow and blue rock-thrush, only call one place home, but many others are fair-weather friends who seek out the best climate where and when they can find it.
Robins are just such birds and they have been busy raising a nestful of chicks in the mild summer of Europe and western Asia. But as the days grow shorter, triggers we don’t completely understand tell birds that winter is on the way and, with it, the big freeze and food scarcity.
Thousands make the cross-continental journey until they reach the Mediterranean. Most will continue their flight across the sea and settle in North Africa, some even crossing the Sahara to central Africa. Here, they take up their winter quarters, enjoying the warm climate and the bounty of food that comes with it.
But some robins are medium-distance migrants. Rather than fly on, they stop in our islands, find suitable territory – maybe the same one they occupied last year – and regale us with their charm throughout autumn and winter.
Know your robin
How can you make the best of robins’ stay with us this year?
For one, you can introduce your child to the idea of “happy sounds”. Make your child aware of how they feel inside when they hear different noises. A robin’s warbling is certainly a good place to start with a definite mood-lifter.
Robins have three kinds of calls: a short tick-ticking sound like two coins hitting each other, a high-pitched whistle and a warbling song. Look up the website https://xeno-canto.org/ and type in European Robin. Before you traipse out into the countryside in search of the bird, familiarise yourselves with its calls.
One of the surest places to hear robins is Buskett, as this is a woodland bird. But robins are not fussy – you will hear them in roadside trees, in school grounds, in gardens, in fields … most anywhere that has a few trees.
Complementing its happy notes is a palette of optimism: the robin’s orange breast feathers are wonderfully offest by a white belly. We tend to associate orange with confidence, warmth and energy, and the bird certainly radiates all of these as it ostentatiously displays its colours as a territory marker.
Territorial rivalry among robins is your child’s best bet to see the bird. A robin must ensure its winter supply of food by keeping its chosen area free from rival robins. A ‘landowner’ will thus find a good perch where other robins can see or hear it, and if an intruder ignores the signs, it will be aggressively chased off. Fields bordered by a row of prickly pears are a good place to see robins, as they often perch on the cactus to be seen and heard by all and sundry.
If you have a small garden or a yard with many plants, set up a bird table. Once the weather gets cold, crumble some biscuits and you will earn yourself unobstructed, regular views of the bird. Your child can take responsibility for making sure there is always a food supply on the bird table and pat themselves on the back that they are helping a migrant survive winter.
The little orange-breasted bird has featured in legends, stories and poems throughout the ages, and is arguably the best-known and most popular of our birds. This call to fame led it into trouble in the past, when children used to trap robins in special cages knows as trabokki and keep the few that survived confinement as pets.
Up to 30 years ago, October was synonymous with the dusting off of robin traps and children heading into the countryside to catch the hapless birds. But years of consistent campaigning by BirdLife in schools saw an end to this practice.
Our children have come a long way since the days when robins’ attractiveness turned them into playthings. Today, children and robins can enjoy a mutually happy relationship. But with our lives increasingly moving indoors, most children are clueless that our countryside is now alive with happy notes. All it takes is a parent to get that connection going.
Desirée Falzon is a naturalist and field teacher with BirdLife Malta.
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