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When I wrote about the robin previously, it was bold but not yet confident enough to take mealworms from the hand.
After we got the mealworms, we thought it would take a few days for the robin to work up the confidence to take them from an open hand, but we didn’t take into account that this bird was already bold – it had already spent a good deal of time watching from quite nearby when anyone has been working outside and would fly into the garage and perch somewhere if Karl was working in there. As it happened, it took just three and a half hours for the robin to pluck up the courage to land on an outstretched hand and grab its first worm. Since then, it will come down often and takes most of the mealworms held out for it.
One of the reasons that robins follow humans about is that, like some other species, robins engage in ‘commensal feeding’ where one species (robins) acts like an attendant to the other species (humans) and keeps watch for its food to be uncovered. When wild pigs were more numerous, the robins followed them, and probably still do, to watch for any food turned up, but humans also do a fine job of turning up the soil to reveal robin food and we serve just as well as pigs. It would be easy to think that robins are being friendly, but really they’re just opportunists who know when they’re on to a good thing. Nonetheless, they are very nice to have around and feeding all garden birds brings the reward of their increased presence in our lives.
What has been very interesting is to watch the reaction of other birds to the robin’s easy meals. A male and female blackbird (Turdus merula) are spending a lot of time foraging near the garage and woodshed and they have been watching closely as the robin comes for the mealworms. The male is still nervous and doesn’t come closer than about 60cm (approx 2 feet), but several times we’ve seen him run up and try and take worms from the robin, though without success. The female is more confident and will eat as many mealworms as she can cram in. She once ate 50 in one go and would probably have eaten more if they’d been available. She has in the last week started taking mealworms from Karl’s fingertips.
I’ve seen pictures in the media of a robin taking food from between someone’s lips and while that sounds like it could be exciting, the following quote from David Lack’s ‘The Life of the Robin’ tells of unintended consequences. ‘Under the heading ‘A Magpie’s Delicate Attention to its Mistress’, the Literary Gazette for 12 October, 1850, noted:
‘A favourite magpie had been accustomed to receive dainty bits from the mouth of its mistress. The other day it perched as usual on her shoulder and inserted its beak between her lips; not, as it proved, to receive, for, as one good turn deserves another, the grateful bird dropped an immense green fat caterpillar into the lady’s mouth.’