Growing feathers is hungry work – helping birds through their moult

A robin (Erithacus rubecula) has been visiting us for three years now. It started as a youngster, coming into the garage and seeming content to perch and watch the activity in there. Seed was put down for it and it returned every day, sometimes several times. After a while, we started supplying live mealworms, which proved extremely popular, and a routine became firmly established.

13-02-2015-robin-2The robin when it first started visiting

Robins don’t live long in the wild, with only about a quarter reaching their first birthday, but I believe this is the same robin. We did have an interloping robin for a season, but that bird behaved differently to this one and the first robin was recognisable when it returned in autumn. The routine established with the first robin three years ago has been repeated pretty much every day since then. This is how it goes: one of us will go to the garage and the door handle will screech as it’s turned. The robin hears this and comes to sit in the wood shed next to the garage. Whoever is there will turn to it and say ‘Hello robin’, which is the signal for it to fly in through the door and stand in a particular spot on a work bench. The mealworms are then produced and the robin will eat several, occasionally stopping to give a sharp glance at its feet.

looking-at-feetThe robin looks at its feet

Being replete, it will then do one of two things – take a mealworm and fly off with it over one of our left shoulders, often ruffling the hair, or fly to a bag hanging from some shelves and perch there. Here, it will polish its beak on the same spot of the bag’s rim and then rest for a while. There we have it; unless we go away, which is not often, this is the sequence we repeat every day. This year, a male and female blackbird have joined in the mealworm bounty, though they prefer to stay outside the garage.

robin-bagResting on its favourite bag

Watching the robin every day, we notice that it has moods. Sometimes it is full of confidence, chest puffed up, and at other times it seems flat-feathered and timid; we wonder if it’s had a near miss with a cat, or if something else has frightened it, but the routine remains the same.

0821-robinDuring the moult and looking pretty scruffy

During the second half of August, the robin started eating more mealworms than usual, up to 16 a visit compared to the current average of six. The increase in appetite was soon followed by it starting to look increasingly bedraggled, feathers loose and sticking out all over. What was happening? It was moulting, as all birds do, shedding old feathers and growing new ones. During this time, birds can’t fly as well as they usually do and tend to go quiet so they don’t alert predators to their dishevelled state. The blackbirds moulted shortly before the robin, with the male losing all his tail feathers. All three birds are now looking considerably smarter, with smooth new feathers and brighter colours. Will they stay with us throughout the winter? Will this be the robin’s last moult? Only time will tell, but the birds’ ‘cafe’ will remain open.

Edit: After reading more, I’ve discovered that if a robin gets through its first year or so, it can live quite a bit longer than 1.1 years. The two oldest ringed robins were 19 years, 4 months, in the Czech Republic and 17 years and 3 months, in Poland. ‘Our’ robin may be around for a while yet!

robin-aug-2I’ll just sit here, thanks

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