Who, what, why: How aggressive are robins?

Large robin Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption A robin bides its time before taking enforcement action

The robin has been voted the UK's favourite bird - but attention has been drawn to its fiercely territorial reputation. Just how vicious is the red-breasted creature, asks Jon Kelly.

With 34% of 224,000 ballots cast, the robin won the National Bird Vote decisively. But much was made of the notion that the species is particularly confrontational.

"Despite being a seemingly friendly bird, the robin is hugely territorial and very defensive of its territory and I presume that reflects us as an island nation that we will stand our ground," said naturalist David Lindo, who organised the ballot.

In its coverage of the vote, the Guardian said the robin was "openly aggressive" and the Daily Telegraph said it had a reputation among ornithologists for "aggressive territorialism".

It's true that they "jealously guard" their patches, says Grahame Madge of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). A male will seek to stake out enough territory to provide food for it, a female and their young.

Robins are one of only a few bird species that hold their territory all year round - males do not migrate in the winter. They will violently attack a stuffed robin which has been left in its territory, pecking it vociferously and flapping wings vigorously against it.

But they are no more aggressive than most other species, Madge says. "It's something that all birds will do." When it comes to a confrontation, the losing robin will usually withdraw before the conflict becomes fatal. Notwithstanding "bird table rivalry", they co-exist peacefully with other species with different diets.

They're only seen as aggressive because of "the contrast with their reputation as a friendly bird" and their place in folklore and on Christmas cards, say Madge.

And it's true that they are at ease around humans. Robins will often approach gardeners, hoping that they will turn over worms as they dig the soil. It's estimated that they live in 85% of British gardens and this, combined with their year-round visibility, has made them a familiar and much-loved sight.

So just as they guard their territory, robins are unlikely to relinquish their hold on the British public's affections.

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