First published January 2019

We all love robins don’t we, they brighten up dull winter days, they accompany us while we garden, they adorn many a Christmas card, they are officially in fact the nations favourite bird. Well, if you love your robin, as I love mine, you might find the following a bit unsettling.

One morning recently while just enjoying the birds in the garden over a cup of coffee I watched a robin on the patio for a full five minutes or more as it digested a worm. It was a big worm, still very much alive, wriggling frantically to try and escape the small but lethal beak of the robin. The bird at first just kept picking the worm up, shaking it vigorously then dropping it. After a while it decided that it was time to eat and snipped off a chunk of worm, so we then had two wriggling worms on the floor and the robin picked up the smaller potion and swallowed it.

Meanwhile the remaining bit of worm tried to escape but to no avail, the robin having digested the first bit, snipped off another bit and then swallowed it. This carried on and I think the robin had in the end eaten four separate sections each of them still alive, the whole process taking over five minutes in total. It was a real nature in the raw moment.

Now, if anyone watching this episode would may be slightly unsettled by this episode but probably would not bother to write to a conservation organisation or tweet or put on Facebook a message about how terrible it was and that we should cull or control the robin population as they are such terrible birds.

Yet this is what happens quite frequently if people see a sparrowhawk take a small bird from their feeding station or garden. Over the years while working for the Sussex Wildlife Trust I had a number of conversations with indignant people bemoaning that a sparrowhawk had killed an eaten a blue tit, great or even a robin in front of them. I distinctly remember one person demand angrily “Your” sparrowhawk has eaten” my” blue tit, What are you going to do about it? There is currently a very small but vociferous group of people who claim that sparrowhawks are a significant cause in the decline in the small garden bird population, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that this is not the case. And they want their legal protection removed.

Basically, we humans love our birds but we don’t love worms or caterpillars or by and large, most other insects. No one is championing the cause of worms, yet the worm is essential to the ecology of the soil, but also provides the major source protein for numerous birds, animals and amphibians. In the same way, small birds provide the protein needed for the larger predators such as the sparrowhawk; it is all part of the food chain that sustains life on earth. Someone who once had a lot of time on their hands, calculated that in one year if all the great tits from all the broods survived to breed the next year and this happened in subsequent years then within a decade, we will all be knee deep in great tits!

Like it or not, blue tits, great tits or even robins are an essential part of the food chain, as are worms and provided that there is a properly function ecosystems then nature will sort it all out so that everything flourishes at the levels that they need to.

Mike Russell