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).