Bird brains? Don't you believe it.

Observing robins living in garden centres, it's plain they're not daft

A resident robin at a garden centreJust before Christmas, I visited a couple of garden centres. Lovely places they can be, with healthy looking ranks of enticing plants set out in attractive displays. These plants can be a pleasure to linger over, they make you want to take them home with you and it is easy to buy on impulse. Forget High Street shopping, I'd go for a garden centre any day. 

Even better than the plants can be the birds you see at garden centres. I'm thinking especially of robins (Erithacus rubecula). I have often seen these bold little birds flitting about the plants in the outdoor displays and now it seems to be a regular occurrence to see them indoors too. A sad tale was told in 2004 of a family of robins living at one garden centre who, despite charming the customers, were exterminated after becoming a little too familiar with the café area. A predictable outcry followed and, some 15 years later, garden centres are learning to take a more sympathetic and less drastic approach. 

Burford Garden Centre in Oxfordshire is a huge place and the robins have made themselves very much at home amongst its sprawl. On my latest visit, I had decided to browse around an indoor area and noticed a robin up in the rafters. It was sitting on a beam, singing, and looking out of the window. Seeing a wild bird indoors elicited a stab of concern. Could it get out if it needed to, or was it trapped?

Asking a member of staff, I was given a cheerily delivered explanation. The birds here were attracted by the warmth in winter, the abundance of spiders at ceiling level and had become acquainted with the routines of the place. They understood the automatic doors opened closed regularly and were accustomed to flying in and out when they had the opportunity. If it was a quiet trading day and few people entered the doors, the staff would open the doors for them. Not only this, I was told, but some of the birds had learned to activate the door sensors by flying in front of them and other birds were taking advantage of this. 

A few days later, visiting another garden centre, I saw much the same - robins being tolerated whilst making themselves at home amongst the indoor plants. The most heart-warming story I've seen of robins taking up residence was one from Hillier's in Hampshire. I used to live just up the road from this garden centre so was pleased to read it. Robins had made a nest amongst a display of plants for sale but, rather than destroy them, management banned customers from buying the plants and put up a 'Do Not Disturb' sign. This is the kind of progress I can support. 

The home robin on one of his perchesIn local news, the fickle robin at home is still visiting and he is also acquainted with our ways. I keep a covered bowl of mealworms on a work top just inside the garage and this is where he usually eats.

The other day, despite my having put down mealworms outside, when he saw me open the garage door, he came straight to his usual perch to eat out of 'his' bowl. 
Please note, the contents of this blog reflect the views of its author, which are not necessarily those of the RHS

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