David Lack and The Life of the Robin

by Ian Tattum

Last autumn a robin briefly occupied our church. It flustered some of the parishioners, who thought it was trapped and, in its terror, would soil the church furnishings. Just one more example of the misconceptions which stick burr-like to this familiar bird, for that robin was not a prisoner but a volunteer, enticed in by the abundance of apples left over from the Harvest Festival. Once I had thrown its food source outside and flung wide all the doors it departed in an instant. My confidence in handling the wayward bird was entirely due to me having just completed David Lack’s ‘The Life of the Robin’, which described the robin’s singlemindedness in the pursuit of something to eat; indeed, its high reputation for friendliness is a delusion in the mind of the gardener, who mistakes its predatory opportunism in  harvesting the creatures exposed by  his spade for affection.

Robin - Credit Carl Bovis
Photo: Carl Bovis

The revelation that the robin’s true character doesn’t match its popular image first came to me on my twelfth birthday. My aunt Lesley, whom Bertie Wooster would have described as of the beloved variety, had given me the recently published Fontana paperback edition of Lack’s book, to encourage my dawning interest in ornithology. I can still remember its cover, of a rangy orange-breasted robin, and the scent of the paper which gave all my early literary acquisitions a distinctive aromatic autograph. On opening the book I was immediately daunted by the density of the text, and by the inclusion of diagrams! But it was the discovery of the actual character of the bird which made me recoil from the gift. This creature with appealingly large eyes and a fondness for human company turned out to be a brute. Even its song, which some have judged will give the nightingale’s a run for its money, was laced with menace. The author’s reasonable and objective tone revealed the shocking truth:

‘The most important use of song to the robin in its territory is to advertise possession to rivals and to warn them off. When an intruding robin comes close to the boundary or actually trespasses, the owner’s song becomes particularly loud, the intruder retreats at once, in this way the song saves many fights.’ – David Lack

David Lack’s The Life of the Robin, was first published in 1943 and has since appeared in a number of revised editions, culminating in the one of 2015, which was brought out to celebrate the bird being voted Britain’s National Bird, in a poll launched by David Lindo, also known as The Urban Birder. At first, I voted for the house sparrow. On its early and inevitable elimination, I transferred my allegiance to the blackbird, but knew all along that the duplicitous robin would win the laurels.

The book had its genesis in a project at the famous experimental school Darlington Hall, near Totnes in Devon, where the author worked as a science mentor between 1934 and 1938. Born in 1910, the oldest child of a Harley Street rhinolaryngolist, David Lack’s fascination with birds began during summer holidays spent in New Romney on the Kent coast. When, at thirteen, he was sent to the Gresham School in Norfolk, he found himself on the doorstep of a number of birding hotspots, including Cley and Hickling Broad. He continued to pursue his enthusiasm through membership of the school’s Natural History Society, disappointingly without the involvement of his later infamous contemporary, the spy-to-be, Donald Mclean. Rejecting the wishes of his father that he should take up medicine, Lack went up to Magdalene college Cambridge to read Zoology, and on his very first day could have been found at the town’s sewage works, rejoicing at his first sighting of a Wood Sandpiper.

One of the prominent features of The Life of the Robin is its many literary allusions. There is no doubt that the spring reading holidays he spent at Mortehoe, also in Devon, as a student helped to cement his deep love and knowledge of English literature. Certainly, the open and intellectual climate at Dartington Hall provided a perfect environment for him to venture upon the collaborative  project which resulted in his pioneering bird biography . The school was founded on radical educational principles, which included a curriculum generated by the interests of the pupils and learning by doing, but academic standards remained very high. Lack himself had been recommended for his role by Julian Huxley, and during his time at the school visiting lecturers included HG Wells and Bertrand Russell. The peculiar ethos of the school meant that students and staff could co-operate in trapping, ringing and observing the birds under Lack’s supervision.

His revelations about the hidden character of the robin caused surprise and controversy when the book was first published, and they still have the power to puncture the romanticism of bird lovers today. Not only does it turn out, as we have seen already in the case of its song, that the robin is territorial and aggressive, but due to its short life span and its migratory habits, the regular garden visitor often hailed as ‘our robin,’ is probably a series of strangers. The tone of the book however was not that of a world shattering expose, but of a measured and informative presentation of the evidence, from a congenial but expert narrator, with a companionable dry wit. Here is the author on the robin’s nesting habits:

‘At intervals the robins acquire notoriety by nesting in a jam jar, a letter box, an old boot, a pulpit, a human skull, or even a dead cat… The record for speed goes to a Basingstoke pair. A gardener hung up his coat in the tool-shed at 9.15am, and when he took it down to go to lunch at 1pm there was an almost complete robin’s nest in one of its pockets.’

Between the publication of The Life of the Robin and his untimely death in 1970, David Lack produced another eye-opening popular study of a familiar species of bird, Swifts in a Tower (republished in a glorious new edition in 2018) and a seminal work on Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos islands. He also pioneered radar ornithology and developed population ecology and is regarded as one of the leading ornithologists of the Twentieth Century.

But I am most grateful for his lightness of touch and his telling use of literary and cultural references to communicate his scientific knowledge – from the learned writings of Sir Thomas Browne to the comic novels of Thomas Love Peacock and Anita Loos –  and for the undoubted enthusiasm and love for the natural world that inspired his work. The book is above all  ‘Dedicated to all those robins who patiently bore my rings and permitted my intrusions into the intimacies of their lives’.

by Ian Tattum

Photo by Carl Bovis

8 thoughts on “David Lack and The Life of the Robin

  1. A timely piece! Just recently, a robin has started singing every morning at around 6:45 from the top of a tree that reaches to the window of our first-floor flat living room. I almost wrote, ‘has started visiting us’! Now I know better. We wondered why he was singing up such a storm in December. A quick Google search led us to the theory that this means he’s well fed and has enough energy to patrol his territory first thing in the morning. He’s very loud, so perhaps there’s competition about. I’m afraid I’ll still romanticize him, though, as he’s very cute and he seems to be looking right in at us as we breakfast in our dressing gowns.

    Many thanks for highlighting David Lack and his book. You’ve given me a great idea for a last minute Christmas present for my other half.

    Krista Ovist


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