Don’t count your robins before they’ve hatched

It may be one of the most iconic and recognisable garden birds in Britain. With its long, spindly legs, hopping across lawns, pecking at seed and insects on the ground, perching on wall, fence, branch. That beautiful orangey red breast and olive brown back, big dark eyes. Everyone knows the robin. From bossing your feeders (for such a delicate looking bird it is actually the one that tends to rule the roost at the feeder in winter) to it’s confident, melodious song that is heard often well before sunrise and throughout the year. This cheeky bird adorns our Christmas cards as well as often being so confiding they will learn to take meal worms and sunflower hearts from the very tips of ones fingers. It is hard to believe they are disdained in other European countries (which I was shocked to hear from a friend who sent a Christmas card with a robin on to a friend in Denmark!). On these fair shores the robin remains a firm favourite even if it will defend its territory to the death.

The beautiful robin

For me I love ringing and handling robins. Catching them and learning how to age them (sometimes not as straight forward as they first appear). I also love finding their nests. For a bird that is so ubiquitous their nests can sometimes be quite hard to find. Hidden in all sorts of places on trees, on banks, in a wall or hedgerow, or even more unusual places like a horses muzzle hanging from the back of a door on a shelf in a workshop. The small, delicate nest is made from moss and dead leaves, lined with hair and wool, sometimes so perfectly blending in with the rest of the tree trunk or hedge row. Here usually four or five small eggs ranging from off white with brown speckling to a reddish brown all over, are carefully laid and incubated. The naked blind chicks, with just a bit of almost fuzzy down hatch after a couple of weeks and barely fill the bottom of the nest, squirming over each other, huddling to keep warm as mum and dad begin the furious job of finding enough food to feed them all. The instinctive reaction to lift their heads, mouths wide open showing a bright yellow mouth (a perfect target for a parent in a rush) means that when one checks a nest this is often the heart melting sight they are greeted with.

Within a couple more weeks they are huge, pretty much full size and filling the nest to bulging point. A careful peer in will now reveal bright eyes, alert and looking back. Time to be really careful. Very very soon the next visit reveals an empty nest, trodden down with poop around it revealing that the chicks have left. It lucky you may catch a glimpse of the brown speckled young in the surrounding trees still scrounging a couple of meals from mum and dad. Soon they will be fully independent and shortly begin a partial moult that will, for all intents and purposes, make them look like an adult. Only in the hand will an experienced ringer be able to tell if a bird hatched that year or the previous. And so the cycle will begin again, where possible birds will spread out and maintain a territory for the winter before looking to pair up and breed themselves the following year.

One of the more unusual locations of a robin nest

Each year it is my pleasure and honour to find a couple of robin nests, to monitor them where possible from building to egg laying, hatching to fledging. Always they have been nests with four or five eggs. This year though, in the crook of a small stump of a tree, overhung with ivy, I found a nest that once more had five eggs. However a return visit revealed a surprise. Not five, but nine eggs sitting in the bottom of this perfect little nest! Never in all my years of nesting (which are not that many to be honest) have I seen a robin nest with nine eggs, but more than that neither have many of the more experienced nesters I work with! Whether this is just a particularly fecund female, or whether another female has come along and dumped her eggs into the nest to save making her own, I will never know. But the female was good.

Nine eggs! (last one tucked out of sight)

A couple of visits revealed her sitting tight, and I would leave her be, others she would not be there but I could hear her scolding me in the surrounding leafy foliage, ticking above the rush of traffic beyond. I was unsure how many would hatch but the next visit revealed another pleasant surprise. Eight tiny, squirming chicks crammed in. But how many would survive? How many would mum and dad be able to feed. Only time would tell, but a few days later and all eight were still alive and growing, ready to be ringed. Each now marked with a unique metal ring. Whoever or however many do fledge and survive, if they are ever found again by another ringer or a member of the public I will be able to tell straight away they came from my little miracle nest.

Eight chicks in  a bag ready for ringing

It is worth saying here both Lee and I are qualified and experienced nest recorders and ringers. These chicks were safe during the whole process, which was quick and completed efficiently.

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