We love the robin. This cheeky, cute little garden bird with its distinctive red breast and vivid song is a popular visitor to feeders and bird tables all round the UK – and it is one of the animals we most closely associate with Christmas too. But how well do we really know this much-loved creature? And why is it connected to the festive season anyway? Today, I’m going to attempt to find out more…
The European robin (Erithacus rubecula) is a common sight all year round and across the country, favouring hedgerows, gardens and parks in particular. They eat worms, seeds, insects, and fruit; frequently provided by us humans. They often nest quite close to us too – sometimes in unusual and unexpected places such as sheds, hanging baskets, discarded kettles or pots, and farm machinery – and have two broods of young a year, often more. The birds and their nests are protected by law.
Both the male and female adult robins have red breasts (young birds are a sort of spotty golden brown), and it is these red feathers that seem to trigger the highly territorial nature of this otherwise innocuous-looking small bird. Indeed, they will often aggressively defend their territory, and have been known to viciously attack other robins they perceive as a threat – and scientists have found that they will also go for small stuffed ‘toy’ robins or even clumps of red feathers!
Their attractive song is used to find a mate, although it is also part of their territorial display. Both the male and female sing, and have different songs for different times of the year, depending on the song’s purpose. During the summer time, territories will be held by mated pairs who defend it together, but by the time winter rolls round, each robin will be singing noisily to protect its own individual patch.
Ask any average person in the UK what they know about mistletoe and the majority of respondents will probably mention the tradition of kissing under it at Christmas. A few might know something about its possible much earlier connections to Druidry – but it’s the snogging most people focus on, for obvious reasons! Like the young lady in the image to the right I’m not too keen on this aspect of the festive celebrations (she really doesn’t look very impressed with his attentions at all!), but I was curious about what else is known about this unusual evergreen seasonal plant, and I was fascinated by what I found out…
There are actually hundreds of different and often ancient species of mistletoe growing in numerous places worldwide, and new types are still being found in the wild by scientists (most recently in 2008) – but I’m going to focus on the traditional, white-berried European mistletoe (Latin name: Viscum album); the one we’re all most familiar with.
It may actually sound like it ought to be something out of a cheap horror b-movie, but mistletoe is scientifically defined as a parasitic plant. As such, it grows on the branches of various different trees, particularly favouring apple orchards. This can have a distorting effect on the growth of these trees if the mistletoe is not pruned back from time to time, preventing the tree from growing new leaves and even killing it in extreme cases.
However, and despite the slightly creepy effects of its parasitic nature, mistletoe actually plays an important role in biodiversity via its interactions with other plants and animals, which ends up creating what can only be described as the mistletoe plant’s very own ecosystem. Such complex associations between these different creatures are crucial in supporting specialist species of birds (such as the aptly named mistle thrush, which helps to distribute the plant’s seeds), insects and fungi.
Bela Lugosi’s dead…
Well, I’m afraid I’ve got some news for you, Bauhaus. The bats are unlikely to have left the bell tower, no matter which classic cult horror movie legend has just passed into the great beyond, because bats don’t often tend to roost in belfries. According to the Bat Conservation Trust (pdf), bats do roost in churches – it’s just they seem to find bell towers far too noisy, dusty and draughty for their purposes (and who can blame them). Sorry to ruin the illusion!
Honestly, it’s true, bats really aren’t as scary as all that, despite the continued attempts of Halloween tradition to try and convince us otherwise. I’m very fond of the little critters (they’re seriously cute – no, they really are!), and I find their lives fascinating. Which is why, this Halloween, I’ll be looking at bats in much more detail, and trying to separate the facts from the fiction.
The basic bat facts are these. Bats are the only true flying mammals. Rather weirdly, their wings are similar in structure to the bones in a human hand. Most bats eat insects, navigating and finding their prey in the dark using echolocation, which works in a similar way to sonar. Bats are found the world over, and make up about 20% of all mammals across the globe (over a quarter here in the UK).
After my recent post about all things autumnal, I felt some more seasonal colour was needed round here. I thought I might go to the local park and see what was on offer for my camera there, but while I was pondering that I noticed this tree, which happens to be almost literally on my doorstep. This lovely, still part-green tree is not in the sylvan surroundings of said park – it’s in the more prosaic location of the carpark attached to the block of flats I live in (not visible in the photo: one of my neighbours sitting in his car giving me a strange look while I repeatedly pointed my camera at the tree…!)
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
The last few days may have been a bit overcast and cloudy, but Friday was a beautiful early autumn day in my little corner of west London. As I went about my business, the morning skies were that fading, mist-tinged blue that I associate with such early October days; the sun a little lower in the sky and the trees just on the turn. Give it a week or so, and the full colourful impact of the season will be revealed right across London – and there are plenty of green spaces in the city where you can see the most glorious displays of colour as the trees prepare for the changing seasons.
Walking to the doctor’s surgery this afternoon, I came upon this small, half-bare tree, spindley branches reaching up towards a near-perfect blue sky. Still partly dressed in its vivid Autumn colours, the contrasts of colour, shape and texture were immediately striking.
As the days get shorter, and the nights longer and colder, such flashes of colour become fewer and further between – so be sure to enjoy it while it lasts, Winter is definitely on its way…
The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag
The reason you will see no doubt
It is to keep the lightning out
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.
Yes, this silly little ditty (one of the first poems I learned by heart as a child) is apparently* by the very same Christopher Isherwood who wrote Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye To Berlin (1938) – the novels that were later adapted into the play I Am A Camera (1951) and the 1966 stage musical and cult 1972 film Cabaret. I was irresistably reminded of Isherwood’s nonsense poem when I encountered this beautiful cormorant stretching out his wings in the July sunshine as I walked by the Thames in Richmond last week. Incidentally, you might like to know that cormorants and shags (no sniggering at the back there!) are, although of the same avian family, two totally different types of bird – and there were no bears (with or without buns) to be seen anywhere, rather disappointingly…
*There is some debate over whether the poem is actually by Isherwood at all, but it is certainly widely attributed to him on most poetry websites and in pre-internet poetry collections (of the physical book kind) dating back over a number of decades that I have either personally seen or own.
I was invited by friends to visit Rochester Square Gardens in Camden, north London yesterday as this community garden project was celebrating its first birthday. Tucked away in a small, quiet square only five minutes walk from Camden Road station, this lovely space was once a plant nursery. Its current caretakers have transformed what had been a derelict site into a place where both plants and people grow sustainably. On their Facebook page (see below), they explain their ethos and invite people to get involved:
We currently facilitate workshops and events promoting environmental awareness and action, Art/Crafts/Music/Film/Photography and Movement. The space welcomes you to tune in with the rhythms of collective awakening, evolution and harmony on our planet.
If you have ideas for the space or would like to run a workshop / presentation / event, get in touch and be a part of the garden! :)
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this peaceful urban oasis and recommend you pop by if you’re in the area! If you’d like a taster of the place, you can see some of the photographs I took during my visit in the slideshow above…
Like a number of other countries, Britain is currently sweltering in the midst of a heatwave. It’s hard enough for humans to cope in the hot weather (personally, I hate it – when it’s freezing cold you can always put another jumper on, but in this heat you can’t take your skin off!), but imagine what it must be like for our wildlife, which has already been battered by the strange weather we’ve been having so far this year.
Fortunately, anyone can help keep an eye on our wildlife during this heatwave – and here’s some simple and really good advice on how to do just that from Val Osborne, who is the head of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ wildlife enquiries team:
While we all revel in an unusually sunny summer, our garden wildlife might not be having such a good time. The hot weather could be causing natural water sources to dry up, meaning birds and hedgehogs could be left without anything to drink.
Turning your outside space into a home for nature by doing simple things like topping up your birdbath, creating a make-shift pond from a washing-up tub or putting down a saucer filled with water could offer a vital lifeline to some of our garden favourites that are already fighting against declines.
Some critters are going to need extra food too, as Osborne also notes:
When it’s particularly dry, worms tunnel right down into the soil, meaning they become out of reach to the wildlife that usually feasts on them, such as blackbirds, robins, hedgehogs and frogs.
If the hot, dry conditions carry on we may see wild plants start to die, meaning bees and butterflies will find it hard. If that happens, our gardens and the well-watered plants in them will become even more important to these insects.
You can find some more good advice on looking after wildlife in hot weather here.
Plus, if you have pets, there’s some great info from the Battersea Cats & Dogs Home on keeping them safe during a heatwave here.
Oh, and if you’re out and about, you can bring me back an ice lolly please!
Stay safe and stay cool…
Cute, aren’t they? This magnificent seven live along the Grand Union Canal at Ladbroke Grove in west London, and are being beautifully looked after by mum and dad. In fact, when I passed them this evening, they were sat on the grass, all trying to wriggle under mum’s wing at once to keep warm! I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of these seven little signs that spring has finally arrived…