Leading Article in THE TIMES, 30 October 2019
We like to think of the robin as a quintessentially British bird. It has twice been voted the nation’s favourite and has posed its way on to countless Christmas cards. Yet the redbreast pottering about your garden could well have flown there from abroad. For the first time, a robin has been tracked making a 140-mile crossing of the North Sea in an attempt to spend the winter in balmier Britain.
The adventurer in question weighed 19 grams, little heavier than a CD, and was fitted with a feather-light “nanotag” in Heligoland, an island off the west coast of Germany. Four hours after it was detected south of Amsterdam its signal was picked up near Felixstowe. The robin zipped across the sea at night, probably to avoid predators.
Robins may be cherished in Britain but they are also misunderstood. Chillaxed as they seem, they live fast and die young. Few celebrate their second birthday. Cats love killing them.
Urban robins can have a particularly grisly time. Confused by perpetually lit street lamps, some are thought to sing day and night before dying prematurely of exhaustion. Those hardy enough to survive until winter must then eat as much as a third of their body weight every day or starve. A blanket of snow can polish them off.
Wordsworth waxed lyrical about the “pious bird with the scarlet breast”, but robins can also be barbaric. A Victorian birdwatcher witnessed a fight between two of them that ended with one dead. Not content with his victory, the robin pecked his foe’s skull “quite bare”.
Yet these pert little birds have long provided humans with companionship. In the early 20th century, Sir Edward Grey found respite from his job as foreign secretary by hand-taming robins, until they happily rode around on his hat.