Wildlife Column with Prof Ian Rotherham
Peter Wolstenholme from Woodhouse, Sheffield, is a regular correspondent and an excellent photographer too.
He emailed me this picture to ask ‘what is it?’ Well, young birds and baby birds cause a lot of confusion and the ones in this particular family especially so.
Its bigger cousin is the common blackbird, and so that may give you a clue. This bird is much smaller, but look at the speckled breast which is a giveaway for the thrush family. With its bright and beady eyes and sharply pointed beak this is an early-morning bird and a predator of stop-out worms and other invertebrates – it is indeed a young or juvenile robin. The speckled breast is quite reminiscent of a juvenile blackbird which is dark brown and yes, speckled. Of course, lacking the distinctive robin redbreast this youngster can be mistaken for or at least confused with, other small birds such as maybe a warbler or something similar. The reason for the juvenile not having a red breast is because that plumage is the territorial marker of the adult robin and the youngster would trigger a very aggressive response from any adults into whose territory it wandered. Lacking the red markings means the bird will be left alone and not seen as a rival – until of course it develops its grown-up plumage but by then it should be able to take care of itself.
My garden robins are incredibly tame this autumn and have taken to following me around for tit-bits and probably insects or worms perhaps as I disturb plants and soil. This is nice to experience but we have to be careful not to ‘anthropomorphise’ the experience and the bird’s behaviour. The robin has evolved to follow large, lumbering herbivores around in ancient forest landscapes and to pick off insects and other invertebrates disturbed by the activity. The robin has adapted this behaviour to hunt and feed around us; so in reality we are merely a replacement for a big herbivore plodding through the wood. Nevertheless, I may soon get it taking mealworms from my hand.
Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues.