Female robin will paint town red when her mate’s away

Showers, while we were sleeping brought a sudden and delightful eruption of colour to the road, verges along the bay, mats of celandine, daisies, dandelion, and wild garlic where there had been trimmed green carpets the day before. It was as if paint had been splashed along the road, as if, overnight, graffiti artists had been at work.

In the morning sun, nests of creamy primroses basked in the shelter of the ancient ruin of Abbeymahon and under fuchsias on wayside walls. The air was scented on the bohreen; the very perfumes of Arabia! Out on the big strand, we could feel the warmth of summer. The sea reflected the sun and the white sand threw back the heat. I threw stones for a neighbour’s dog, a clever animal. Even when I threw a non-descript pebble into a bed of them 20 yards away, the dog always brought back the right one.

Life at the garden bird table is busy but peaceful. Chaffinches are the most regular patrons, a cock and two hens.

Then, there are all the tits. I suppose, I should give that silly name, ‘titmice’, as seen in mid-20th-century bird books, but that seems prudish today

They troop along: great tits, blue tits, coal tits and, occasionally, the most charming and acrobatic, long-tailed tits. There are greenfinches, goldfinces and, also, a year-round resident robin, who now has a mate who will soon have a nest in a hedge nearby. She will, of course, occasionally sneak off for a high-speed, covert flirtation when her partner is absent. It’s in the nature of female robins. Nevertheless, their macho partners don’t like it.

Last week, all hell broke loose when a strange male entered the territory. I believe it was only seeking a collation of peanuts, but our redbreast went for him like a harpy, with his partner standing on the side-lines, chirping alarm and abuse. It seems our pal has picked something of a fishwife to mother his children (not that fisher-men’s wives cannot be the most refined of souls...).

Of course, for both birds, it’s all in the good cause of rearing a fat family. So much ground will supply so much grub. For the upmarket robin, long-ensconced in a well-appointed garden and with a well-trained gardener working for him, a rood will be more than enough. A leisurely flit around the flowering shrubs and fecund compost-heap will more than keep the family in victuals. Plenty of time over for sticking out the chest, singing arias, and seeing rivals off the turf!

For Poor Law robins, or a pair just getting started, it’s a different story. There’s a lot of hard flying to be done, back and forth over acres of rock and scutch grass, with no fat worms and no such thing as a free bird-table lunch. Trying to rear a starveling brood in a ragged hedge is no picnic, and the offspring turn out as skinny and nervous as themselves. Mortality is high in bad winters; existence is precarious at best.

Why do they stay there, one asks, rather than hit the suburbs for the easy life? Cock robins are amongst the most belligerent of bird species when called upon to defend their territory. They’ll attack their own image, seen in window glass or a mirror, and can even exhaust themselves to death doing so.

Through the winter, cocks and hens hold separate territories. Singing establishes the boundaries; females sing, too.

When one robin pauses for breath, another starts up. They get to know their neighbours’ voices; it’s when they hear a strange voice that feathers begin to fly.

In mid-winter, the female skulks onto the territory of the male of her choice. She does the choosing; nobody knows her criteria

She has heard all the local renditions and avowals, but, perhaps, finally, it’s the singer not the song. Perhaps female robins (like some human females) simply favour big chests and neat tails.

When age catches up with the incumbents, it’s likely that one of their own fat sons or daughters will inherit; the urchin from the wrong side of the barbed wire never gets his foot in the door. Houses may rise and decay and human owners may come and go, but robins, like rooks, occupy the same patch of earth in a direct line for generations.

It’s an advantage for birds to stay in the same place all their lives and this applies even to the starveling. Knowing every stick and tussock and the hideaways of every grub and insect is the best guarantee of finding food and shelter when times are hard. Average life expectancy is 1.1 years, but one famous fat-cat robin lived to be 19.

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