Gone are the days when a well known soft drink company is the only name on people’s lips when it comes to Christmas advertising. This year the famous ‘Holidays are Coming’ slogan has been challenged by more traditional Yuletide messages and Santa’s festive truck has taken a back seat. I particularly like the offering from Waitrose which depicts the tale of a robin as he heads home for Christmas. It’s a moving story of a difficult journey across snow covered mountains and stormy seas, through freezing fog, an encounter with a bird of prey and a near-drowning experience. Undaunted, the robin makes it home just in time to share a mince pie with a friend on Christmas Day.
In truth, most of Britain’s robins are sedentary and tend to stay close to their home territory. However, Northern European robins are migratory and head south for the winter arriving in Britain in mid October. Some may stay here throughout the season but others will continue on to Spain or Portugal. Most of the robins arriving on our shores are from Scandinavia and as the advert suggests, their 3-7 day journey is not without its fair share of drama.
Like many migratory birds, robins use stars and landmarks such as rivers, valleys or mountains to navigate by. However, dense cloud cover and fog limits their navigation skills and the robins can become disorientated and lose their way. Robins are unable to fly above 500 metres and so struggle to fly over the top of bad weather. This is particularly hazardous when flying across open stretches of water on foggy days. Many migrants end up flying into the oceans. Over 4,000 birds have drowned in the Mediterranean sea this year alone.
By the time the Scandinavian robins have reached Britain they are tired, hungry and ready to refuel. Unlike the Waitrose advert, the ideal food is not a tasty and sugary mince pie; a varied diet of berries, seeds, worms and small insects is the preferred choice. Robins tend to hunt for invertebrates from a perch where they literally have a ‘birds-eye view. During colder months you might seen them scavenging in leaf litter under bushes or hedgerows. Their proportionally large eyes are perfect for foraging in dark places and they are skilled night hunters.
Perhaps the most endearing trait of a robin is the blaze of red breast which contrasts strongly against the watery colours of winter. Scandinavian robins have paler breast feathers; more orange than scarlet, but it is difficult to distinguish them from a distance. During the breeding season the male will puff out his breast a little to settle territorial disputes. Here again Waitrose have used a little artistic licence, robins are not particularly chummy and really don’t like to share. Adult mortality can be high due to fights over territory and this is the reason why robins are born without their scarlet coat, only acquiring a red breast after their first moult.
Even if you don’t see a robin nearby you are likely to hear their melodic song. Listen out for a ‘tic-tic’ followed by a high pitched ‘swee’. These tiny birds are usually the first to start the dawn chorus and often close the show. In fact, they can be heard singing well into the night, especially in artificially lit urban areas and are one of the few birds to be heard singing all year round.
As I glance outside my window, a flash of colour catches my eye. Is it a robin red breast or his paler Scandinavian cousin?
I’m off to get a better look.