Sunday 1 February 2009
Claire Timmons from Bray, County Wicklow feeds Robbie the robin every morning, and he’s become very tameClaire lives on the Vallombrosa Estate, at the edge of Bray. The Estate used to have a large apple-producing orchard, and Claire’s father worked there for many years. When the M11 motorway passed through the area in the late 1980’s, many of the trees were pulled up, and the business drew to a close. Many of the apple trees remain, and the area has become a pleasant haven for wildlife.
Claire sees some wild mammals, including rabbits, foxes badgers and even occasional deer. But it’s the wild birds that are particularly abundant, and when Claire feeds her dog Max every morning at her back door, a small flock of birds fly down around her. There are blackbirds, song thrushes, finches and blue tits, but the friendliest species of bird is the robin. Half a dozen robins are usually waiting for her, and over the past four years, Claire has grown to know one particular robin very well – she has even given him a name: Robbie.
He must have been a young bird when she first met him. She used to give Max a biscuit, and she noticed that a small robin was especially cheeky, rushing in beside the dog to pick up any crumbs that he dropped. Claire began to throw a few crumbs in his direction, and over weeks and months, he moved closer and closer. It was a pleasant routine every morning. Max would happily crunch his breakfast biscuit, and Robbie fluttered nearby, waiting for his own treats from Claire. He became increasingly tame, and eventually began to land on her hand, pecking the crumbs directly from her palm.
Over the years, Robbie has become almost too friendly. Claire has a habit of making a little extra porridge for breakfast, and leaving small splodges on the fenceposts of her garden for the birds to share. Robbie has worked out that this delicious treat is produced in Claire’s kitchen. If she leaves the front door open for a few minutes before the porridge has been produced, Robbie hops into her hall, moving up towards the kitchen. Claire has to chase him out – she worries that if he did come into the kitchen, he might land on the hot plate of the range, burning his feet.
The robin is one of Ireland’s most common birds, with estimates that the current population is around four million. Some bird species have been adversely affected by human developments and destruction of their habitat, but robins are very adaptable birds, and they have thrived in close proximity to humans.
There are a number of other robins around her garden, but Claire recognises Robbie instantly. His eyes are a different shape to the other robins, being more oval than circular, and he is far more friendly than the others. Claire has also learned about his seasonal routines. Every springtime, in February or March, he finds a mate. He starts to bring a female robin with him, and he ensures that she gets plenty of food by passing on Claire’s crumbs to her. A few weeks later, the female bird disappears, and soon after that, Claire notices that Robbie starts to come to her window, looking for extra food after breakfast is finished. The reason is simple- his mate’s eggs have hatched and the young birds are hungry. Claire has never seen the robins’ nest – there is so much dense undergrowth and briars around her garden that it would be impossible to find it.
After some more time has passed, Robbie starts to bring the robin fledglings along for the breakfast feeding sessions. As with his mate previously, he gathers up Claire’s crumbs, and flies over to his small brown speckly offspring to feed them.
As the young birds grow older, Robbie eventually decides that it’s time for them to find their own territory, and he chases them away from his own patch. If they come close to Claire, Robbie starts to rush at them, chirping loudly as if giving out to them. The young birds wait around in the background, but even this isn’t good enough for Robbie. He charges at them, and bobs up and down beside them. Eventually, they all disappear, presumably to find their own territory, and Robbie is once again the robin in charge of Claire’s back door area.
Robbie spends time close to Claire throughout the day. He sits on the clothes line when she’s hanging out the wash, and he’s always there if she’s gardening. He waits for her to reveal some worms by turning a sod, or some insects by lifting a flower pot. He gets so close at these times that Claire worries that she’ll accidentally hurt him with the shovel or lawn mower, but he’s very skilled at hopping out of the way.
The lifespan of a robin is typically short, at around two years. As friendly birds, they are particularly vulnerable to predators, of which the most common is the domestic cat. They are also often killed by cars on the road. Food shortages in the winter contribute to early deaths in many birds. Claire’s “pet” robin is already four years old, and he seems as healthy as ever, helped in no small way by Claire’s daily food supplements. The oldest robin identified in the wild lived to be twelve years of age, so Robbie could be around for some time to come.
+ Robins are one of the most common and popular garden birds in Ireland
+ They are friendly, and can even be semi-tamed
+ Many robins depend on humans for food at this time of year