Rare robin, well done

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It’s been a goldfinch winter round our way. Not momentous news, I realise, but bear with me, for they are eminently watchable birds, and a source of considerable pleasure.

Here’s one.

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Ten minutes spent in their company never fails to raise the spirits. They’re colourful and sociable, and their bouncing flight and tinkling chittery calls are a daily boon. Also, unlike most of the other garden birds – smash-and-grabbers, constantly wary of predators – they have the pleasing habit of sticking around at the feeder, treating it like an office water cooler (is that still a thing? I have never worked in an office and don’t intend to start now). They settle in for a proper feed and a chinwag, flecks of food spraying in all directions, the messy blighters. Then they gaggle up to the nearest tree, still chattering, either of their own accord, or possibly chased away by a single robin.

At this point you might be thinking ‘Ah, a robin. Awww. Sweet ickle things with their orange bosoms and perky demeanours. The gardener’s friend, Britain’s Favourite Bird. Always a pleasure, never a chore.’

I too enjoy seeing a robin. But make no mistake, they’re murderously aggressive towards anything that deigns to encroach on their territory. There are plenty of feeders to go round in our garden. The robins could share, play nicely with the other birds, but no, they want it all to themselves – the brattish child in the playgroup, grabbing all the crayons.

I blame the parents.

Despite this now quite well-known tendency, I do, as I say, enjoy seeing them. But if I enjoy seeing a robin, that’s nothing compared to the residents of Beijing. Because a robin in Beijing (or, for that matter, anywhere that isn’t Europe or parts of North Africa and Eurasia), is something of an event. So when one turned up at Beijing zoo this week (only the third sighting ever – the third! I saw that many this morning over breakfast) – it was a pretty massive deal.

Naturally, twitchers being twitchers – and if you want a full explanation of the difference between birdwatchers and birders and twitchers you could always AHEM buy my book Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear which contains that and much more thank you for your patience we now return to our scheduled programming – it was received with the fervour traditionally reserved for any rarity anywhere.

I don’t know what the Mandarin is for ‘FUCKING HELL LOOK IT’S A ROBIN HAVE YOU EVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT IN ALL YOUR PUFF’, but I’m guessing that’s the message that spread like wildfire through the Beijing twitching network.

Here it is, with its adoring entourage. (Photos courtesy of Zhang Xiaoling)


People, we hardly need reminding, are very very strange indeed.

I confess to being torn about twitching (to save you the bother of buying my book, a twitcher is distinct from a birder because their chosen activity is the active seeking of rarities, sometimes to ridiculous lengths.) Nearly all the time I’m content just to go out and see what I see, but just occasionally something turns up, people get excited, and I’m tempted to drop everything and join the throng. Then I look at my list of ‘Things To Do – Urgent’ and get over myself pretty damn sharpish. And while I understand the allure of grabbing the opportunity to see something rare and magnificent, something I might never have the chance to see again, it also strikes me as faintly ridiculous behaviour, stemming from an over-developed sense of competition (although God knows I’m well enough endowed in that department, as anyone who has played Racing Demon with me will testify).

So I can see why the good denizens of that historic city were so keen to grab a piece of the action, but I’d like to think that, had I been there, I would have resisted the temptation to hurry along with my telescope and long lens, and contented myself with the easy views of some of the more commonplace birds in my back garden – a lot of which, of course, would cause a similar ruckus were they to turn up in West Norwood tomorrow.

It’s worth remembering that nearly all birds are rare somewhere, and the difference between commonplace and rare is often just a matter of geography. So the next time you see a robin, or a blackbird, or a blue tit, or any other everyday anything, take a closer look, imagine you’re seeing it for the very first and possibly the last time, and give it the respect it deserves.

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