Festive Friends

PUBLISHED: 14:06 20 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:36 20 February 2013

Robin in snow. Photo: David Chapman

Robin in snow. Photo: David Chapman

We look at a couple of birds that are popular visitors to our gardens in December

Festive Friends

David Chapman looks at two birds that are popular in our gardens in December

With the festive season upon us, I have chosen to focus on two of our most familiar and popular garden birds, which should be obvious during December - the robin and the wren. They both occur commonly in our gardens, both have a feisty attitude, a loud song and quite surprising links with the festive season.

THE WREN

It is difficult to believe that the wren is both Britain's most common and most widespread bird. I have seen wrens on the highest points of Bodmin Moor, on remote Cornish headlands, on the Isles of Scilly, in towns, woods, by rivers and lakes, around farms, houses and gardens. In fact, it might be easier to list the places they cannot be found.

How can the wren, which is at home in our gardens with the blue tits and robins, also thrive in such wild and inhospitable places? The answer includes many factors such as attitude, desire, ability and co-operation.

When it comes to measuring a wren's attitude, there can be no more obvious indicator than its song - the volume would be impressive even if it came from the lungs of a bird twice its size. Fearlessly, a male wren will perch on an exposed branch to pour its heart and soul into every note of song. With its beak wide open and tail thrust into the air, every sinew and muscle of the bird helps produce its inspirational song.

The wren's song is easily recognisable. It is high-pitched and always contains a trill, usually at the end. The wren's tuneful outpourings can turn to scornful rebukes, however, should an unwanted visitor wander close by; cats and owls are two of the most common recipients of the wren's vexation.

The desire of the male wren drives him to work hard at his marital duties. Once he has paired up, he provides not just one nest but a choice of several for his partner to choose from. This ball-shaped nest of twigs and leaves could be described as scruffy in appearance, but the male wren would probably rather describe it as functional and well-camouflaged. Just one of these nests will benefit from the feminine touch when the female wren lines it with soft furnishings such as feathers and hair.

Wrens are able to live throughout Cornwall, in part because of the variety of locations in which they can make their nests. Beside a river the wren might nest in a hole under a bridge; in the garden it might nest in a shed; in the woods it may nest in a tree hole or amongst ivy; in hedgerows it makes nests in bramble thickets; on a farm it might use an old swallow's nest; and on remote headlands and islands most wrens nest in dry-stone walls.

Smaller creatures have a larger surface area to volume ratio making them more susceptible to heat loss, so on cold days wrens need to feed continually to survive and at night they must shelter from the elements. Some will even overcome their usually solitary nature to take shelter with other wrens.

But what of the wren's connection with Christmas? Well, sadly the wren was once the focus of annual 'wren-hunts' and the fact that these events took place in the days after Christmas is no coincidence. It is said that Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr (whose feast is on the 26 December), had been falsely accused of blasphemy and was to be stoned to death; his attempted escape was foiled when the alarm call of a wren alerted his guards. Throughout the rest of the year, it has always been regarded as unlucky to harm a wren.

THE ROBIN

The robin is one of our most enthusiastic garden birds. Its habit of following wherever we dig, looking for grubs, is particularly appealing and has led to its strong association with gardeners and to it being chosen as our national bird in 1960. Robins lead interesting lives with a few less-well-known traits of behaviour.

The robin's song is one of its most attractive features, but in autumn and early winter this takes on an altogether more sad and melancholy tone. During autumn birds re-distribute themselves into their winter quarters, with many birds moving south and west, though some remain in one location all year round. Once established on their winter territories, all robins, both male and female, sing to proclaim 'their' bit of garden, and they can be ferocious in defence of it.

Despite the robin's affable approach towards us, its attitude to its fellows can be distinctly fiery. A relaxed robin is short and looks slightly dumpy with its feathers puffed out, but bring on a rival and its stature changes. Stretching its legs and neck to make itself as tall as possible, the robin thrusts out its red breast and perks up its tail in the manner of a wren and struts around in front of a challenger. The robin may be slightly less territorial in winter but with more of them around - due to an influx of birds from the north and east - disputes often occur and the bird table is a good place to observe them.

Once paired, the females sing no more. This pairing can take place as early as December, but St Valentine's Day is traditionally the optimum time for making bonds.

In winter the priority for birds is survival, which means that they must spend their time finding food. Generally robins eat insects but during the cold months, when insects are less active, they turn their attention to other prey. One plant which the robin has learned to use is the spindle, easily recognisable in winter because of its pink fruits with seeds embedded in a bright orange coating, or aril. The berries of the spindle are one of the most nutritious of any in Britain though the seeds are poisonous and must pass quickly through the bird's digestive system.

The robin will gratefully accept food from the bird table in winter. One of its favourites is the mealworm and for those who don't like handling live bait, it is now possible to get dried mealworms.

Winter is also the time for planning ahead; it won't be long before our garden birds will be looking for a nest site.

Robins can be attracted to nest in an open-fronted box situated in a well-concealed location, though they are famous for occupying unusual nest sites, and top of the list is an open teapot with spout pointing downwards to allow water to drain away.

It is probably because of the robin's red breast that it has become so much a part of our tradition. The association between robins and Christmas is an intriguing one. It is known that early postmen wore red jackets, which led to them being nicknamed 'robins'. This may help to explain why robins appear on so many Christmas cards, but the robin's link with Christianity came much earlier.

It is said that when the baby Jesus was in his manger in the stable, the fire which had been lit to keep him warm started to blaze up very strongly. A brown robin, noticing that Mary had been distracted by the inn-keeper's wife, placed himself between the fire and the face of baby Jesus. The robin fluffed out its feathers to protect the baby but in so doing, its breast was scorched by the fire. This redness was then passed onto future generations of robins.

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