Gardening with Professor Ian D. Rotherham

Robin Christmas card
Robin Christmas card

In the Christmas Wildside phone-in on BBC Radio Sheffield, we had a listener ask about the high number of robins around at present.

Well, there are several reasons and one is that large numbers of birds fly in from continental Europe to over-winter here.

In times past, it was observed that these European birds were not as tame as the British ones.

This was for two reasons, the first being the tendency at the time for Continental cuisine to include songbirds!

Secondly, the fact that in Britain we tend to feed the birds in winter was an added trigger for tame robins.

In evolutionary terms though, the robin has learned to follow large animals through wooded or forested lands and to catch and eat small insects disturbed by them.

In essence then, we are a substitute for a large grazing animal!

This year, thanks to a relatively mild start, a good breeding season, and plenty of food available in the wider countryside this autumn, it has been a good year for robins.

One particular Derbyshire bird was named Santa Robin because of its odd appearance with pale buff plumage.

This remarkable ‘leucistic’ bird with a ‘Santa beard’ had already defied the odds by being among the 40% of robins that survive their first year, and is now into its third winter.

Closer inspection suggests that this is what I would describe as a partial albino as it has a white (not buff) ‘beard’ on its otherwise red bib.

According to the latest British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Garden BirdWatch results robins, in general, have had a successful year in 2014.

Relatively mild weather meant that they began with low numbers in gardens during the early year because they were able to survive in the wider countryside without our help.

With a healthier population of robins, and a productive breeding season, robin numbers rose in gardens towards the late summer.

Then, by the end of August, they reached an all-time high for BTO Garden BirdWatch records.

Finally, this combined with another warm autumn and plenty of naturally available foods.

Clare Simm, from the BTO Garden BirdWatch team, was in touch to say: ‘It is fantastic to hear Santa Robin is still out there. Winter is a challenging time for robins as they struggle to find enough food to survive the cold nights.’

Only time will tell how winter will play out for British breeding robins and the wintering European birds, but so far, so good!

Let me know what you observe, and if you see any oddly marked birds too.

n Professor Ian D. Rotherham, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues, is contactable on