After some overwhelmingly positive reviews regarding my piece on the ring-necked parakeets that I posted earlier this year, I thought it would be a nice idea to put together some articles on a few of the other wildlife species that can be found throughout the nation's capital, a place that I have called home for the past 11 years, London.
As mentioned before, London is far more wild than one may first think. It is estimated to be home to over 14,000 different species of plants, animals and fungi; all of which live alongside the 8.9 million human residents. A number of these species are easily found; spotted on the commute to work or when wandering through the city's parks, whereas others can be a little harder to locate or then there are those whose presence here may come as a surprise to some. London, as far as an ecosystem is concerned, is far more complex than just grey squirrels and thousands of feral pigeons. That being said, I thought I would start this series with one of the most commonly found bird species here in London, the European robin.
Unlike many other countries, the United Kingdom does not actually have a national bird that holds official status. In the 1960s, in a poll published in The Times newspaper, the European robin was voted as the most popular bird species found here in the UK and, subsequently, was named the unofficial bird of the nation. A more recent poll in 2015, organised by the bird enthusiast David Lindo, again saw the robin named Britain’s national bird, taking 34% of the final vote but what makes this little passerine so popular?
Part of our love for the robin seems to stem from its inquisitive nature. It is a bird well known to gardeners given that it is fairly unafraid of people and, in fact, is often drawn towards human activity. On numerous occasions over the past few years I have been sitting on a park bench here in London and a European robin has landed on the armrest or bobbed about on the ground below.
Their song is one of the most recognisable of all the songbirds found here in London and, with a little practice, it is very easy to identify a robin singing in a garden, park or woodland and be able to approach that specific individual without scaring it off. In fact, the song is another of the reasons that people love the robin. Robins are one of the few UK birds that sing all year round and are one of the only birds that you can hear calling in the cold winter months. In fact, the robin’s presence in winter is so unique that the European robin has developed a strong relationship with Christmas itself.
They became synonymous with Christmas in the mid-19th century due to the bright red uniforms worn by Royal Mail postmen, who were subsequently nicknamed 'robins'. In no time, the robin redbreast was seen on cards, holding envelopes in their beaks, or sitting on postboxes; a tradition that continues today with the robin being a main feature of mantle pieces all over the UK during the winter period.
Most of the above is also why I love photographing these birds; their bold nature and constant song make them extremely easy to locate in my local parks and, when I do find them, they often do not mind me being around - creating a huge range of opportunities for my photographic work.
That being said, not everything is rosy red for the robin. The average life expectancy of these birds is just 13 months, predominantly due to a high mortality rate during their first year of life. Ironically, the snowy Christmas scenes that we associate robins with are sometimes a huge contributing factor to this. Robins are ground feeders, hopping around lawns and flowerbeds, and beneath trees or shrubs, where their large eyes enable them to find their invertebrate food even in the lowest light. During a cold spell, when the ground freezes solid, locating food is trickier; and when a blanket of snow falls too, they face a real struggle to survive, unfortunately resulting in a large proportion of robins not making it through their first year of life.
In addition, whilst the British public seemingly like the European robin for its loving nature towards humans, it does not show the same sort of affection towards other birds. Male robins are noted for their highly aggressive territorial behaviour. They will fiercely attack other males and any other competitor birds that stray into their territories. They have been observed attacking other small birds without apparent provocation and there are a number of documented instances of robins attacking their own reflection. Territorial disputes sometimes lead to fatalities, accounting for up to 10% of adult robin deaths in some areas. Robins are sedentary, meaning that they do not migrate, and so large numbers of robins can end up concentrated in one place. This can be magnified in urban areas, such as here in London, where suitable nesting sites and green spaces are limited and so competition amongst individual birds is seemingly increased.
What can we do to help? If you happen to be one of the lucky London residents who happen to have their own garden or green space then putting out a suitable food; seed mixture or suet balls over winter when food is harder to find would be of benefit. Robins are known to utilise a wide-range of sites for nesting, in fact anything that can offer some shelter will usually suffice, but a man made nest box, favouring a design with an open front, might encourage robins to take up residence.
Despite that, the overall population numbers of the European robin is not of major concern. As its name suggests, this bird is found throughout Europe, as well as in some parts of western Asia and northern Africa. The IUCN Red List identifies the European robin as ‘least concern’ and estimates for its global population number in the hundreds of millions, making it a wide-ranging species.
There are a number of spots throughout west London where I work with robins and, as one of my most-liked birds to photograph, as well as one that is consistently nominated a favourite of the nation, it looks set to stay a regular feature within our lives for years to come. A small song-bird with a big personality, the European robin is a common sight throughout the green spaces of London and one that I will always appreciate working with from a photographic perspective. Hopefully this article, and my photographic work, has helped reaffirm your love for the European robin or, at the very least, provided you with some new knowledge about a species that you likely observe on a regular basis.