Squirrels can sing

So sing to whom singing is given ...

The robin in portrait

The robin is famous for its fearlessness, which is unique in Europe. Up to a meter it also joins completely strangers. The reason: It looks out for large animals because they usually stir up some insects that can then be eaten.

Robin - Photo: NABU / Hartmut Mletzko

The robin breathes our exhaust fumes, has an ozone hole over it and has to bathe in acid rainwater. The question “What can you do to help him?” Will not lead to increased creation of wet meadows and hedges this time. Nevertheless, replanting one or the other bush can not hurt. The best thing would be a little "undergrowth" in your own garden. Because the closer it gets to nature there, the sooner the (G) species list will grow to include a robin. In larger gardens it can even breed. On the other hand, it avoids even extensive allotment garden settlements if there is overly pedantic action against any form of wild growth. In cemeteries, too, it usually doesn't feel particularly well taken care of.

The fact that the annual bird 1992 is a common bird is downright interesting from a conservation point of view. This is how one becomes aware of the problems also associated with common birds. Are there 2.5 million robin pairs in Germany or 6.5 million? Hopefully this year there will be a fruitful puzzle about this knowledge gap, because this is not a pure numbers game. Frequent bird species can also be used as "indicator birds" and characterize the condition of the living world. A strong increase can even be a warning sign. But too little is known to be interpreted.


Robin holes from acid rain?

In general, robin numbers are more likely to increase. But in the Harz there are a few robin holes yawning. There are likely to be more such holes elsewhere, as they are apparently caused by acid rain. Prof. Hans Oelke examined the effects of the acid rain syndrome on bird populations in the Harz Mountains. Fortunately, in 1972 he had unwittingly done his own preparatory work and accurately recorded bird populations. After the occurrence of severe forest damage, he counted again in 1987. A robin was no longer noticeable on any of the test plots, although in 1972 they still had a dominance of 12.3 percent.

From this Oelke draws the clear conclusion that the robins should be monitored on a larger scale. They are one of the species in which forest death can best be seen. This is probably due to the fact that robins are crucially dependent on the structure of the forest floor. The British ornithologist Rus Hoelzel recently discovered that it is not the size of their territories that is decisive for the breeding success of robins, but the nature of the soil vegetation.


I know the voice ...

A robin year is also extremely beneficial to turn interested laypeople into avifaunists and ornithologists. How easy it can be to discover a robin, and vice versa. Because new knowledge is still very easy to come by. Just a few months ago ornithologist Emma Brindley from Nottingham presented a remarkable result that any tape owner could have achieved before her. It showed that a robin recognizes its neighbors by their voice. To do this, she played various robin voices for a district owner. Robins react to such suspected intruders with violent counter-singing. However, if the neighbour's voice was played, the reaction was much more moderate. This also makes sense, because the owner was already roughly in agreement with his neighbor, which is also shown by many behavioral observations. Not, however, if the neighbour's voice suddenly came from the "wrong" side, where another area was located. With such unreliability he received the same portion of Abwehr-Rabatz as any foreign robin.


Robin - Photo: NABU / Kathrin Raedel

But if the neighbor's voice stuck to the district agreements, it was even more likely to "finish" than a stranger. The owner of the district fell into the singing of the foreign voices rather than his neighbors. These discoveries were a fine achievement for Mrs. Brindley. Perhaps she was inspired by the spirit of Robin Hood and had even carried out her experiments in Sherwood Forest near her university town of Nottingham.

Robins can also be observed without a tape recorder. The robin is famous for its fearlessness, which is unique in Europe. Up to a meter it also joins completely strangers. But it is probably not the fascination of Homo sapiens that attracts the big-eyed bird's attention. Rather, it actively looks out for large animals because they usually not only stir up a lot of dust, but also some insects, which can then be destroyed. Robin expert Rudolf Pätzold even suspects that the young robins are familiarized and introduced to the advantages of large animals by their parents.


Come closer

Conversely, people can also approach successfully. Pätzold even managed to follow a nest building from nine meters without any hiding place, another time from three meters away. Robins are actually the most delicate in this situation and can even be misleading. Because when the female hops over with a new transport of material, often with so many leaves in its beak that it can hardly be seen behind it, then it pays attention to the looks of strangers. If it feels like it is being watched, it may pretend that the nest is somewhere else. It then carries the material there first and only later, using every cover close to the ground, comes back to its actual nesting site.

However, Pätzold also reports of less shy robins. Their nests were created in an airplane and, with successful brood, in a moving railroad car. Once a gardener is said to have taken off his coat at 9.15 a.m. and found an almost finished robin nest in his pocket at 1 p.m. Another of these animals was given a human bed for breeding purposes. While the bed-owner was at breakfast, nest-building had started in it. When the owner returned he found himself faced with a fait accompli and slept elsewhere until the boys fled.


House building is a woman's business

Usually, however, the robins stay on the forest floor of the facts when building their nests. The bowl-like shape of the nest suggests that robins belong to the thrush family. Adaptable as they are, they can build their “rearing stations” out of moss, stalks and roots, but also in slightly elevated places in niches and small caves. Sometimes a small canopy is even built over it. The female is the designer and the only construction worker. However, there are also said to have been males who took nesting material in their beak. But just as quickly as the astonished observer's jaw drops down, so too does the male drop such material out of his beak.


Robin - Photo: Axel Aßmann / www.naturgucker.de

Robins are tough breeders. They stay on the eggs for up to five weeks if for some reason the chicks do not hatch, although the shells usually crack after 12 to 15 days. The offspring is helped to get out of the egg. The mother bird not only takes off the shells, but also carries them dozens of meters away because they would be too conspicuous in the nest. Camouflage is the key. When building nests, camouflage is even more important than thermal insulation, as it is more likely to increase the breeding success. Because in some regions the cuckoo is very interested in such accommodation options. Mice, rats, weasels, squirrels, jays and other nest robbers are even more dangerous. But thanks to good secrecy, more than every second egg becomes a youngster.

A large number of children is also necessary because robins have a short life. Usually it only lasts until next fall. But there are also robins that are ten years old. With such a mortality, the necessary offspring cannot be obtained with just one brood. Twice a year a hollow in the floor has to be filled with the whitish, rust-brown dotted eggs. Usually the mother wrests four to five of them, which are very uniformly patterned. If a few daughters hatch from it, they lay eggs in the following year, which are confusingly similar to their mother's egg pattern. Because of the double burden of two broods, the breeding season extends from mid-April to August. Only the female breeds. Then one fine morning the young hatch.


Move out after two weeks

Both parents feed them and also remove the poop bags from the nest. Sometimes this garbage is even carried into the territory of unfamiliar robins and only dropped there. The nest is surprisingly closed after 13 to 15 days. 39 broods were observed. It never took more than 18 hours for the entire nest crew to practice getting out. Once, however, the mother was needed to move the last baby to leave with a little swing. Even outside of the nest, the young are not yet able to feed themselves. They are ready on the eighth day at the earliest. The youth are sometimes scattered all over the area. But it can also appear as a group. It is not uncommon for the offspring to be split up. Then the father takes over one part, the mother the other. But if a second brood is due, the female leaves the further care to the male and immediately starts building a second nest. With such a cooperative operation in the robin sanctuary, it is not surprising that robins are very communicative birds. Even the boys can warn each other. When the older ones let out an emergency hiss, the younger ones leave the nest.

Sing to whom singing is given. And that's plenty for the robin. They can be heard all year round, especially the males between March and May. There is also no time of day when they would always be silent. They belong to the group of earth singers, including the nightingale. But a robin who got caught in a mine has also become an underground singer. It sang there in total darkness. If it is placed in a dark bag during the ringing procedure, it can begin to sing there itself. Also sometimes in the middle of the night. Rudolf Pätzold was once able to experience the reaction of robins to a solar eclipse: singing. Presumably the robins thought the evening had come. They sing about an hour before sunrise and a good time after sunset.

This is probably one of the reasons for their big eyes. They have to capture a lot of light for their twilight and moonlight activities. Pätzold saw a robin build its nest in the moonlight at 5:04 a.m. Even artificial light sources, street lamps and windows can be used to hunt insects at night. Their singing is very diverse. No fewer than 275 motifs have been found in one robin, although these are difficult to pin down as they are constantly changing.


Robin in the snow - Photo: Felix Gelpke / www.naturgucker.de

But the basic principle is simple: melancholy. A 2.5 second stanza usually starts low, climbs up, and ends low again. In this melancholy, however, there is mockery. Even as young birds, robins begin to imitate other birds. Titmouse, chaffinch, chiffchaff, fitis, goldhammer and even the blackcap rollover can be heard in the little earth warbler.

A distinction can be made between chanting territorial defense and invoking femininity. Singing without "cause" is aimed at any females passing by. This is evident from the fact that he wears off very abruptly when a mating came about. But if the separation occurs immediately afterwards, the singing can resound in its old strength within hours. Territory announcement chants, on the other hand, are usually triggered by an intruder. These ways are slightly taller and shorter than normal.


Both sexes sing

The female can sing too. It sings very similarly to the male, but quieter and less often. Some female songbirds begin to sing after they leave Africa because they are setting up their own territory there. However, female robins sometimes take winter territory near their breeding site and defend it with increasingly powerful song. This phenomenon has now also been examined hormonally. How “masculine” are the body fluids of the female territorial owners? The biologist Eva Kriner neutralized the masculinity hormones of the territory owners. Nevertheless, they remained aggressive. The singing was prevented by the "emasculation". In addition to their singing, robins have numerous calls for various purposes. They are usually very similar and begin in the mouths of human imitators with "zi ...". The best known is the "Schnickern", in which a number of "zik" elements indicate a malfunction.

It can also relate to people like this. A tame female robin can call them begging. These calls are usually made to the male who is expected to feed. If it is seized, it can give off a trilling alarm call. If a female steps to feed the nestlings, they do not move at first, no matter how much the nest wobbles. Only a soft chattering feed call triggers the unlocking of the beaks. The nestlings, for their part, have chirping begging sounds from the seventh day onwards.


Robins at the drinking trough - Photo: NABU / Kai Blömker

Vocal feelings are said to maintain contact among adult birds. There is also the "dib". In groups of migratory birds, the good tone is more “trietsch”. Singing is not only used to indicate territory ownership, it is also the main weapon with which this property is fought. There is indeed the case of a robin who was killed 80 seconds after entering a foreign territory, but the violence generally only escalates slowly. First there is the singers' war, in which the opponents sometimes reach the heavy metal volume of a blacksmith's workshop with 100 decibels. Even then, the district owner can see that he will lose out. Then he stops singing, drifts around in silence for a while in his lost realm and finally leaves. Only when nobody wants to give in do the adversaries cling to each other and try to hold the opponent on the ground and poke his eyes out. Such conflicts can sometimes last for hours, although everything is usually decided after 30 minutes.


Red makes you aggressive

Not only strange singing is exciting. The orange-red plumage between the forehead and rear breast also triggers aggression. Crimson feathers leave a robin cold, but if an ornithologist like the Brit Mead has an orange beard, then he too will be attacked. The aggressiveness can vary from region to region. In addition, robins are relatively tolerant when an intruder is only looking for food. In winter, a territory owner can even join a group of robins that follow a pig burrowing on their land.

In England it has been found that there are more male robins than females. About 20 percent of the males remain without a partner. Many do not even set up a territory. These underprivileged people often sleep together. Deep in the bushes there are usually a few, sometimes up to 35 robins sitting close together. But in some cases the sleeping community also consists of district owners. Then the group breaks up every morning long before sunrise and sometimes flies for miles back to their territories. The females also often help defend the territories. Females and males stick together well, although they basically have what is known as a local marriage. So they come together because they just happened to be drawn to the same place.

Usually a female gives up her autumn territory and is mated to one of her neighbors a day later. That can happen as early as January. However, it is not uncommon for a female to actively seek a more distant partner. It also happens regularly that females and males separate again after a few days to weeks. After all, the male has to overcome the shock of another red breast in his territory. Sometimes it takes days before it no longer tears away in front of its female.


Sex only when building a nest

Once the two get used to each other, there comes a time of mutual disregard, because the sexual behavior seems to be linked to the nest building. When the time comes, the female utters begging cries and is also fed by the male. Even females standing in a full food bowl direct such begging calls to their males. While the nest is being built and the eggs are laid, the female calls for copulation with a special shout and in a forward-leaning posture, with trembling wings. In these ten days or so there is mating several times. As soon as the female breeds, the male takes care of it.Usually the male comes near the nest with a full beak and utters a special call. The female then briefly leaves the hatchery and fetches its part.

The insect hunt usually takes place on the forest floor. The robin sits on a branch up to six meters above the ground. At a distance of eight meters it can still detect a mealworm on the ground. It immediately pounces on the prey and flies it back onto a branch to be eaten. But there is also active search on the ground. Many a fallen leaf is turned over in the process. The robin usually moves hopping, only in exceptional cases does it take one to three small steps. In autumn it also eats berries. Another form of foraging made headlines. It happens that robin hunting is reminiscent of a kingfisher. Reliable reports and photos are evidence of robins that dive and sometimes even fish successfully. This is by no means absurd, because robins are among those birds that go into the water without further ado. On the one hand they hunt for aquatic insects and small fish in shallow waters, on the other hand they bathe passionately. Rudolf Pätzold describes it:


Young robin - Photo: NABU / Gaby Schröder

“About half a meter from the surface of the water, the bird falls on the ground and hops to the shore. With his feet still dry, he wets his head and chest two to three times and then moves into the water to a depth of four to six centimeters. Now the head is submerged up to twelve times and at the same time the water surface is lashed with the wings so that the splashing fountain makes the bathers almost invisible. After 20 to 30 seconds, the bird hops ashore for a few moments and then repeats this splashing three to four times. In total, the bath is over after about three minutes. The bird then flies to a nearby bush or tree, cleans itself for four to six minutes and brushes it off. "


Daily bath

Robins bathe every day, mostly in the evening. Death by drowning is not uncommon. In the morning there is usually an additional bath in dew. Even in winter they bathe on ice if necessary. A robin was once caught by a gray shrike simply because its plumage was frozen from the bath. Usually its main enemy is the sparrowhawk.

Another cause of death is human in nature. The robin year is an occasion to take action against songbird hunting in some European countries. The robin population is in no way threatened, but its victims are numerous. However, one should not forget that masses of migratory birds are also shot in one's own country, even if they are not songbirds, but geese.

The robin is famous as a migratory bird. Wolfgang Wiltschko discovered the magnetic compass on him. The robin can reach its destination even when the night sky is overcast. Since then, the same type of compass has been discovered in all migratory birds examined. In which body organ is this compass located? The latest research has shown that a receptor for changes in direction of the magnetic field exists in the optical system, whereas changes in the field strength are perceived in the nasal system, even if they are only a hundred grams.


Why move south?

Another phenomenon can be researched well on the robin, because it is a typical part-puller. A part of our robins flies to the western Mediterranean area, another part stays with us in winter. The crucial question is now: Why? Maybe it doesn't matter; are the dangers of the northern winter as great as those of the train? Or do those animals move away that have not found a proper territory?

In northern Belgium it has now been found that the females in particular migrate south. In addition, the "steadfast" remaining males survived just as well as the migrating males even in the extremely cold winter of 1984/85. When mating, the returnees then lost out. They found a female only half as often as the permanent overwinterers. However, a good part of the migratory behavior is hereditary. Even under the same conditions in the aviary, some robins show that they want to leave in autumn and others do not.

Lutz Dröscher

from: Naturschutz heute, issue 1/1992


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