Everybody's favourite little garden bird
Cape Robin-Chat – Cossypha caffra (Afrikaans: Jan Frederik)
The Cape Robin, as it is commonly called, is probably South Africa’s best known and best loved garden bird. It does no harm at all to crops, being entirely an insect eater.
But it’s not really a robin at all. In colonial times, wherever English people settled in a new country, the first bird they looked for was one that resembled the English Robin Redbreast. In South Africa and elsewhere the bird they named robin was not even a direct member of the European robin family. In South Africa it is a chat, in India also a chat, in America a thrush and in Australia and New Zealand it is a songbird related to the flycatchers. The only thing all these birds had in common with a robin, was a red or orange breast. But it does show what a popular little bird the robin is and has been for a long time.
One could write a whole story about the nesting sites chosen by robins. In the wild they will nest low down in thick bush, or low down in a bushy tree. Once they move into your garden, which they seem to prefer, being the first bird to move in where people have settled, they may nest in hanging baskets of ferns, in pot plants or empty baskets lying in a corner on the stoep. There are a number of records of robins building their nests in a jam tin containing nails or screws, inside a discarded shoe in the garage or in a pile of fire wood. One nested in an open drawer with old clothes in.
Robins will sometimes nest in a pot plant inside the house. Then arrangements must be made to have some opening where they can go in and out. When this happens you may also have to find temporary lodgings elsewhere for your cat, because very few cats can live in peace with robins. Canines are less of a problem – robins are usually quite able to cope with a dog.
We often nailed a kippered-herring tin, which looks like an oversized sardine tin, to a suitable branch to entice robins to nest. Put some leaf litter in the bottom and remember to always punch a few holes in the bottom of the tin for drainage. You won’t have long to wait. Robins will nest in all except the very cold months, so they have about a nine-month breeding season. If they find a place sheltered from rain, they may nest all year round.
Robins love to take a bath. A sure way to attract them close to your house, is to have a shallow bird bath always filled with water. They often take the liberty of having a splash in the cat’s or dog’s drinking bowl.
The nest is cup shaped and has an outer cover of fairly rough material, with a neatly lined sup inside. They lay 2 to 4 eggs. The eggs are pinky green with rust-coloured spots. Incubation is by the female only, but both birds feed the chicks.
The robin is the favourite breeding host of the Red-chested Cuckoo (Piet-my-vrou). The cuckoo egg is dark chocolate coloured and much bigger than the robin’s. The Piet-my-vrou does not remove the robin eggs, but cuckoos hatch about 3 or 4 days sooner than their hosts. Then the young cuckoo chicks, specially equipped for the job, tip the robin chicks out when they hatch. This often happens while the female robin is busy brooding on the chicks. Watching from a hide you can see the baby robin being pushed out on the hollow back of the young cuckoo, over the side. End of story. The female robin seems to take no notice of the whole procedure.
The cuckoo chick, once it is alone in the nest with no competition for food, grows very fast. At 10 days it is often about twice the size of the adult robin. When the robin comes to feed the chick, it seems as if the youngster grabs the food, robin and all, it’s gape is so big. At this stage the robin often sits on the back of the imposter chick while feeding it!
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