Sunday, August 23, 2009

Robin life

ROBIN LIFE - update

Robin life baffles us, and just when we thought we were beginning to understand a bit of it.
Let us start with Mrs Robin (Erithacus rubecula melophilus), a bird we taught first to feed on cheese bits from the flagstones in front of our shed, then from the floor inside our shed, and then from my knee.
Her mate appeared each spring to do his bit, even sometimes taking cheese from my knee to help feed his young. Then he was gone - until the following spring. She was once more our resident bird, guarding her territory in the leaner months for food.
One year, when our resident pair were feeding their young in a nest box attached to the rear of our London house, a strange robin appeared. He saw what went on in the local robin world and came immediately to my knee for cheese. With these morsels of Cheddar he wanted to help feed Mrs Robin’s young – but was repulsed. But he was an insistent bird and was eventually allowed to take part in the feeding process. So now we had three birds coming to my knee for cheese, as part of a mixed and balanced diet.
This new bird had the unusual habit of hovering in the doorway of our shed before entering. So we named him Hoverbird.
The young flew, Mrs Robin’s mate left, and so did Hoverbird. We were back to normal, with Mrs Robin in charge of the territory.
Then Junior appeared. Junior was a fine-looking young bird. We presumed that he was one of Mrs Robin’s brood. It was not long before Mrs Robin left and Junior took over. He was a lovely fellow, who would eat from my knee and, if a bit full, would sometimes sit with us to pass he time of day, always looking us straight in the eye. He was fascinated with Margreet’s feet, especially when her red-painted toenails were exposed. Like his mother, he, as with all robins, had an eagle eye and, even from our shed, might suddenly dash to the other end of the garden to grab a spider.
One day he appeared at our shed door and surprised us by hovering. Had he perhaps reverted to his youthful habit of hovering? In this case Junior might have been the grown-up Hoverbird.
But no. This was indeed our original Hoverbird back – and after an absence of two years. Junior had now left.
Hoverbird, as he was before, a rangy bird, thin, a bit scruffy, upright, full of nervous energy. He appeard to be shy with his hovering habit but, becoming more at home again, would fly straight in to my knee, eat more than Junior did and, standing tall, has a watchful eye on all the goings-on in our shed. When Margreet is not there he will spend time looking at her empty chair.
Why do robins suddenly come and go, one taking over from another? Do they have some form of agreement? There is no sign of fighting. And there is little sign of territorial conduct, although they exercise their right (if they are quick enough) to eat dunnock food when cheese bits get thrown out to these shy birds when they beg for it.
We taught one robin to eat from my knee (and sometimes Margreet’s, too) and three others have learned from her and have copied the habit. So they are observant and learn from other robins.
We are very lucky to have such friendly and lovely-looking small birds to enjoy and observe. But understanding robin lore is not easy for a human.
For almost a week the garden was bereft of robin activity. Then one appeared – a new one, named “The New Boy on the Block”.
On day one he perused the garden, settling to eat food from the small tray where only hemp and sunflower seed is offered.
On day two he was getting closer to the shed.
Day three saw him entering the shed.
On day four he was eating bits of cheese from where I put a supply, and eating cheese bits from my adjacent knee, but not landing on it. He had learned all this on his own – not having had other robins to copy.
Then the weather became cooler and we were less often in the shed. But cheese bits disappeared with regularity from the open shed, taken from the place where I leave small morsels for robins. Who was taking it?
Then came a spell when robins were conspicuous by their absence. But in mid October a brand new one appeared. We dubbed him “Handsome” as he was very keen on his appearance, loved a drink, followed by much splashing around in the bath. But he was very shy. A lively fellow, he investigated the territory with zeal, even turning a leaf over to see and eat what was beneath.
Although he was clearly intent on making our garden part of his winter territory, he was not at all sure if our tamed dunnock posed a threat to it. So sometimes he would break off from his eating (mainly) spiders to chase off the shyer one of the two.
Naturally we had to train our new resident. The first move was for him to find out that morsels of Cheddar cheese tasted good. These bits were thrown well out from our shed on to garden flagstones. Then the bits of cheese were positioned nearer to the shed door. And after that a bit of cheese was placed outside and some just on the floor inside. In he came. Now it was time to place a morsel or two on the floor and more on the box of bird food right next to my knee. He is now eating from there, where we can have a good look at him and he can get used to our voices. But he is still nervous when close to us.
With winter in the offing, that is where the matter will rest – until the spring, when I hope he will still be here and ready to come to my knee for cheese with which to feed his young.