The robin that had me eating out of his hand: Seeking the healing balm of nature in lockdown, author HUGH WARWICK set out to tame a young robin… and in return for the food he provided, it brought him glorious flutters of joy
Hedgehogs. I love them. I have been involved in hundreds of talks, radio interviews and TV appearances about hedgehogs. I even do stand-up comedy about hedgehogs, in which I tease birdlovers with the fact that people in Britain love hedgehogs more than birds. The polls prove it.
But I have a secret. I have a deep love for birds, too — and one bird in particular. Not just a single species of bird but one member of that species. My robin.
Seven years ago, I put into action a lesson I had been taught by the writer and biologist Dr Andrew Lack — a lesson he had been taught by his mother. And that was how to tame a robin.
The year-and-a-half I spent feeding and photographing that robin were thrilling. I even wrote a piece about it in this paper.
And then it vanished. They don’t live long, robins, usually just a year or two, and we happen to live in a neighbourhood beset by cats, which kill them.
I got into writing books about other things and pushing hard on my hedgehog campaigning. The robin was not gone from my mind completely but time was always too short to put in the work on another one, as there is work involved.
Feathered friend: The robin perches on Hugh’s hand to peck scraps of food, flutters on his fingertips
But the announcement of lockdown changed all that. Suddenly there was time to rediscover life in the garden.
Time to follow the wisteria as it grows from from twig to bud to jumble of sweet purple scent to burnished copper leaves. Time for the garden to become shaded and private once more as the trees burst into life.
And time, in particular, to take notice of a young robin, bobbing around as we potter in the garden.
Robins are generally well-disposed towards human beings. Why? Because, to the robin, we are little more than tall pigs. In their natural habitat, the woodland edge, they follow wild boar, watching as they turn over the soil and expose food.
And what do we do in our gardens? We weed and dig. So the robin hops along behind us.
My wife, Zoe, was first to think about pulling this young bird in closer, encouraging it to become our ‘pet’ robin.
The technique is simple but can take a while. First you need bait — a lure. To start with, we used a few crumbs of cheese not much bigger than grains of rice, placed on a garden table.
Hugh says: ‘My wife, Zoe, was first to think about pulling this young bird in closer, encouraging it to become our ‘pet’ robin’
We stood nearby and watched, with a tremble of excitement that maybe this would work, as the youngster swooped down, snatched the cheese from the table and was off again.
We took it in turns to move closer to the table, letting the robin know we were no threat, allowing it to acclimatise to these giants in the garden.
We would extend a hand out in the air and the bird, tentative, bounced round the far side of the table before moving in, grabbing the cheese and flurrying away.
Next, we would put a hand on the table. The same reluctance at first, but it still hopped over to grab the cheese.
I popped over the road with a begging bowl to my neighbours, left it on their doorstep and, from the road, asked for some dried mealworms that I knew they used as bird food. They generously provided and the robin was grateful.
Now came the moment to see whether it would take a mealworm from our hands. Zoe went first.
The robin was hesitant. This was different. Not just a bob bob across the table: flight was required. We could see it sitting on the wisteria to our left. I was reminded of myself, standing on the bank of a cold river before jumping in.
It kept flexing, bobbing, seemingly trying to pluck up courage to take the leap. We weren’t expecting much so soon — we were not even two days into ‘training’ and it can take a week. But then the genuflection led to a leap and it was in the air, heading for Zoe’s outstretched hand.
Like a rather cumbersome hummingbird, it fluttered a few inches from the hand and then lost courage, darting back to the bush.
Never mind. We waited and, after a couple more false starts, it touched Zoe’s hand with its delicate feet, grabbed a mealworm and pushed off immediately back to safety. And our hearts leapt.
Now, two weeks on, our lives have become dominated by this young bird, just a month old and still unadorned with the orange breast that signifies an adult of either sex.
In fact, the robin ‘redbreast’ is so named because there was no word for the colour orange in the English language until the early 16th century.
I have been trying to capture a photograph that really tells the story. This has forced me to sit and wait, because it is not just us that the robin visits — my neighbours tell me it has been seen two or three doors down the street.
And in that waiting, I find the focus on movement of the leaves, dappled in light, is one of the most calming experiences.
So why should this matter?
‘Now, two weeks on, our lives have become dominated by this young bird, just a month old and still unadorned with the orange breast that signifies an adult of either sex,’ says Hugh
Having contact with nature makes me feel better. Over the past few weeks I have been charting the seasons either in the garden or on my lockdown outings — although sometimes the ‘exercise’ meant I would be found lying on the ground with my camera for a while.
The snake’s-head fritillaries were resplendent this year — damp-loving flowers that sprinkle magic across the Oxford meadows near where I live.
The bluebells filled a small wood with a haze of both colour and perfume (so we knew they were British bluebells) as my son, persuaded out on the bike ride, found a moment of calm away from a screen.
And the birds! I am lucky to have a small garden which backs onto a park. It is in east Oxford, full of trees and reflects my belief that we should get rid of the ‘cult of tidiness’ in our green spaces. If our garden was manicured it would be far less friendly to wildlife.
The goldfinches, with their charming tumble of chatter and song, would not spend so long dancing above my head if this were a ‘tidy’ garden. The hammock I have slung allows me to sit and read and sense what is around. The piping long-tailed tits are always a treat — bumbarrels is an old name for them, from the shape of their nests — and a flock will twitter around as they glean aphids from the leaves of trees.
Sitting there, I heard a scratching in the leaves on the ground behind me, and twist to see a blackbird, its beak grubby from rootling, looking up at me, surprised.
The dunnocks are like mice — two bold mice as they scuttle around the pond and then perform their scratchy song from the mass of ivy over the old Wendy house.
Hugh said: ‘So whether it is a robin you tame to hand or a hedgehog highway you create, such moments will both help you and encourage you to help nature in return’
And the sparrows take the ivy above the swing seat as their hostel and chatter with such insistence that it is impossible not to read family life into it all.
Outside my garden’s space are the martins, swallows and swifts. These sky-cutters are the real sign of late spring blooming into summer. And of them, it is the swifts that thrill me most.
They seemed late this year, maybe because I was given the time to look for them in lockdown and had been awaiting them as the days passed.
But glancing up from my hammock at the patch of blue sky raggedly framed by ash and willow, I got my moment the other day as two, then four black scimitar shapes sliced through the air — the swifts are back and, to paraphrase the poet Ted Hughes, the world is still working.
And then the wren starts to sing — nearly our smallest bird, yet with a song so strong that it sweeps all before it.
The joy that garden and local wildlife brings me is a joy experienced by many. These moments of connection with the natural world are important to us all.
But if we are to experience the wonderful qualities of nature, then nature must be allowed to get to us. With the birds, that requires a bit less tidying in the garden and the planting of flowers that will encourage insects on which the birds feed.
For my first love, hedgehogs, there is an extra step required because we need to get them into our gardens.
I help run a campaign to encourage everyone to make small holes the size of a CD case — too small for most pets to get through — in garden fences because hedgehogs need to roam, often for more than a mile, at night.
I also started a petition nearly two years ago which now has close to 750,000 signatories. It is asking for such a small thing — that the countless homes being built all over the country should come with Hedgehog Highways as standard. Already, Bovis, one of the largest developers, has got on board.
Love of nature is not just sentimental, it is crucial. It helps us recover, undermines the degradation of our mental strength caused by lockdown and the loss and grief that abounds.
My relationship with this robin has changed me. In these troubled times, it has provided me with a focus that can take me out of the trials of sharing a small house with two teenagers.
When, one morning, I didn’t see it for over an hour, I began to fear the worst. I started to plot revenge on the beautiful cat that is the neighbourhood’s principal predator. Luckily for the cat, the robin reappeared — and then did something so magical that the stress of everything was washed away in a moment of beauty.
The robin landed on the washing line. I had put a sheet out and my first thought was ‘please don’t poop’.
But the bird was just two feet from my face and I studied it deeply. I could hear, from far away, another bird singing faintly. But as I gazed, I realised I was wrong.
The beak of this tiny teenager was moving very slightly and the most ethereal trickle of song was emerging. This is known as ‘sub-song’ — our novice singer was beginning the practice that will eventually mean the garden is filled with rich music.
So whether it is a robin you tame to hand or a hedgehog highway you create, such moments will both help you and encourage you to help nature in return.
If there is one lesson we have learned from this lockdown, it is that we need nature to keep ourselves healthy. Let’s not throw that lesson away once we start to return to ‘normal’.
Hugh Warwick helps run the Hedgehog Street campaign with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species. His petition for hedgehog highways can be found at change.org/saveourhedgehogs
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