Robins, chaffinches and black redstarts

As winter draws ever nearer, the leaves of the deciduous trees around us disappear, opening up the vista and revealing dwellings on hillsides that have remained hidden since spring.

While much of the wildlife we have become accustomed to over the summer months disappears and the summer birds have long since migrated, this is the time of year that we start to notice more robins, black redstarts and small flocks of chaffinches.

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A Robin sitting on a hawthorn branch
The iconic robin on a hawthorn branch.

Robins belong to the 'Old World flycatchers and chats' family of birds, feeding on worms, seeds, fruits, insects and other invertebrates. Unusually, the males and females are impossible to distinguish as they look identical, both having red breasts. They are also considered unusual in that they sing nearly all year round rather than just during mating season.

The robin's red breast is solely for territory defence rather than for courtship. A patch of red triggers territorial behaviour and they become aggressive, driving away intruders of their own kind - but are generally not bothered by other species (in fact, their parental instincts are such that have been known to feed chicks of other species).

During the mating season, robins make nests and will usually have two broods per year but can brood as many as four times, each producing a clutch of 4-6 eggs with around a 50-60% survival rate.

Robins generally stay within a small territory and in lowland woodland you can find as many as 200 pairs in a single square kilometre. So if you have a robin regularly visiting your garden it will most likely be the same one, or one of a pair during mating season.

We often watch robins hopping around on the ground beneath the olive tree on our lawn, flitting between the trees on our terraces, or else perching on the top of the fence.

Robins like to line their nests with hair - we like the suggestion we've seen recently if you have a pet that sheds fur to peg some fur to a washing line or a tree during the spring and summer for them to make a cosy nest. It sometimes seems as if there would be enough to line the nests of all the robins in Tuscany with the amount of fur we collect in our house from just one dog!

A Chaffinch on an Autumn branch.
A colourful male chaffinch.

The chaffinch belongs to the Fringillidae or finch family, it is believed it takes its name from the fact they would spend weeks picking through discarded wheat chaff for grain.

It is unlike the robin two notable ways: the red breasts of these birds is a characteristic of the males only, and the females have only one brood per year, of around 4-6 eggs.

We often see the males here in small groups of maybe 5 or 6, hopping around on the ground along the driveway, scattering when we near them and showing off their distinctive flashes of black and white.

During mating season they build a nest in the deep forks of tree branches or tall bushes and switch their food source from the seeds we see them foraging for in flocks on the ground to a protein-rich diet of caterpillars, aphids, earwigs, spiders and beetle grubs.

The chaffinch has a lifespan of around three years but there is a record of a ringed example lived for almost 14 years!

A black redstart sitting atop of a shrub.
A black redstart.

This species originally inhabited stony ground in mountains, particularly cliffs, but has learnt to nest on buildings and can often be seen on top of chimneys - which explains why in Italy its common name translates as 'red-tailed chimney sweep' (codirosso spazzacamino).

While the black redstart is relatively rare in the UK now, here in Italy they seem numerous and we frequently see them in the garden. Indeed, last year we had a black redstart nesting in in a cavity in the stone wall of the house.

They generally feed on flying insects, often catching them in flight and when not in flight will bob their heads and tails, not unlike robins.

So right now we're reinstating our bird feeders and stocking up on bird food for the cold months so that we can help our feathered pest controllers through another winter. Meanwhile, we plan to build some next boxes in time for mating season next year.

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