Patrick Barkham celebrates the long-standing residents that make up Briatin’s rich fauna: Robins
from Country Living – December 2017
All Creatures Great and Small
In the silence of midwinter, the only sound is the rattle of .......... (1. life) oak leaves edged by a filament of frost. The world is dark and cold, and we’re hiding indoors. Most of the animal world is hunkered down, too. Then, bursting through the chill, comes a .......... (2. melody) burst of song from a hugh branch.
No wonder we love the robin. The most companionable of wild creatures .......... (3. friend) us just when we need it. Baring its bright orange breast (it was nicknamed redbreast before our discovery of the fruit gave us a word for the colour orange), it fixes us with its eager eye, asking for food at the windows and patio doors, and following us as we work in the garden. We like animals that don’t flee our presence. It is why the hedgehog always wins polls of our most popular mammal, and why the robin thrashed all-comers when 224,000 people voted for Britain’s national bird a couple of years ago. The robin not only takes food from bird tables, or even our palms, but also nests in the most eye-catching places: from garden sheds and plant pots to car wheel arches and unused ovens. There’s even an account of a robin making its nest on an unmade bed while its owner was downstairs having breakfast (the bed was kindly left .......... (4. disturb) until the chicks fledged). But for all our passion for this .......... (5. sprightliness) garden visitor, we don’t really know the robin. This bird is not what we think it is, and perhaps it is all the more remarkable for that.
A long-standing relationship
We have always lived alongside the robin. Or, to be more accurate, it has chosen to live .......... (6. side) us. In a land before humans, the robin was a small woodland bird that evolved to hop about in the wake of wild boar, gobbling up insects and worms exposed by their rooting through the soil. Nowadays, robins track us intently when we are gardening; we are, as the writer George Monbiot memorably put it, „fake pigs”. Culturally, ever since the bird came out of the woods and into our gardens, we have considered ourselves to have an intimate relationship with it. In 1579 it was even .......... (7. reputation) to protect the departed: Thomas Lupton wrote that if a „Robyn redbreast” found the dead body of someone, it would cover their face „with Mosse”. On the continent, where the robin remains a more furtive woodland bird, many people have traditionally eaten them. We would never countenance such a betrayal of our companion. „What! Robins! Our household birds! I would as soon eat a child,” declared the historian Mountstuart Elphinstone, .......... (8. ghastliness) at witnessing their consumption while travelling in the 19th-century Italy.
The song for all seasons
We also love the robin for its song, which sounds so poignant in the .......... (9. winter) air. No other garden bird gives us so much music, for so much of the year. Both the sexes sing, and .......... (10. usual), you are most likely to hear them at Christmastime when the males begin travelling further afield in search of a mate (some believe that this may also account for their breast taking on a richer hue, although this is most likely an illusion caused by the muted tones of their winter surroundings). However, we should recognise their song for what it is: a means of declaring, and defending, their territory.
David Lindo, the urban .......... (11. bird), ran the competition to find Britain’s national bird. „From the word go, the robin was straight out there,” he says. „A lot of people believed it was already Britain’s national bird. They look very cute. They come to your bird table, you feel sorry for them, and they are the gardener’s mate. From our point of view, they enjoy our company. But the robin is a great representation of Britain as well, because it’s small, feisty and .......... (12. territory).” Lindo is struck by how .......... (13. will) we are to accept that they hold territories by the force of their singing. „People almost refuse to believe that,” he says. „I tell them and they say, ’Oh, my robin is different’.” He believes the robin’s life competing for food in small gardens may accentuate its strong personality; European species don’t seem so assertive, he has observed. Meanwhile, studies of urban robins show that they have less complex songs, performed at a higher pitch to make themsleves heard. Those of us who reside in the din of a city can probably empathise with that.
One part of the robin’s complex lifestyle, which has become more popularly known in recent years, is its migratory feats. Although we previously believed the birds didn’t leave the UK, it has been discovered that some travel great distances. This fact was captured to great effect last Christmas by Michael Morpurgo when he wrote Coming Home, a children’s picture book about a robin enduring all kinds of hardships – attacked by a falcon; lost at sea – before flying back to be with its mate, and its human family. It was published alongside a supermarket advert featuring a brave robin making a long migration to share a mince pie at a bird table. I struggle to read or watch either without welling up.
It may be because of these kinds of festive appearances, and because bare branches make them more visible that, according to Lindo, some people still erroneously believe that robins only live in our gardens in the winter. However, our less conspicuous summer robins may not be the same creatures as our wintry companions. Some birds migrate south to the Iberian Peninsula, while other Scandinavian individuals take their place by flying back to Briatin in winter – just like the adventurous robin in the advert. But those doing this would only be able to return year on year for a short period. While Lindo knows of some robins that have lived for a venerable seven years, most only survive a couple of winters, so he often has the difficult job of breaking it to people that their much-loved robin that returns every winter is more likely to be a .......... (14. succeed) of different ones.
This shouldn’ shatter our illusions, though. We live in symbiosis with robins – they need us for food, and we need them for our souls. Inspiring symbols of resilience, they show u show to survive the cold and are welcome .......... (15. remind) that our relationship with the natural world doesn’t end during winter- their presence in our gardens is an enduring thread, linking us to the life that will burst forth in just a few short months.
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