THE soft focus of robin redbreast against white winter snow is one of the iconic images of Christmas, signalling a season of peace and goodwill.

But behind this simple scene of tranquillity lies a very different story indeed, for the robin is really a bit of a bruiser.

Both sexes are territorial, but the male is particularly so, and should another male alight on his patch, then with feathers ruffled and wings drooped he will do everything in his power to see off the unwelcome intruder.

Usually, it is all about threat and posture with both males squaring up to each other with necks outstretched, showing off their vibrant red breasts.

A vicious chase will often ensue, as one bird pursues the other low across the garden in short darting flights, before intermittently stopping to face up to each other again.

Often this is enough to settle the dispute, but sometimes a furious fighting bout will result, with one robin pinning down the other in a frenzy of aggression.

Such aggressive behaviour may seem a bit over-the-top, but for a robin its territory is of all-consuming importance, for it provides an exclusive food source during the lean days of winter and an area to raise young during spring and summer.

But for most of the time the robin is a rather more genteel bird that brings welcome colour to our gardens.

Every gardener will have appreciated the constant companionship that a robin brings as it follows you around the garden, swooping down every so often to pick up a worm or insect larvae revealed during weeding or turning of the soil.

The tame robin will quickly flit back up again to a nearby perch, such as the handle of a spade, and with head cocked to one side will wait intently for the next morsel to be unearthed.

Such feeding behaviour shows an opportunistic side to the robin that helps shed some light on why it one of our most successful and common birds.

The robin brings colour to our lives in many other ways. It is, for example, one of the few birds that will sing all year round.

In spring and summer, it is a song that is delivered with real gusto, clear and sharp but always with a touch of the melancholy.

In winter, the song is a softer, more fluting warble that is often heard on milder days when the wind is still. Robins frequently sing by night especially in the vicinity of streetlamps.

Such eccentricities are carried through to its breeding behaviour, with birds often nesting in the strangest of places such as discarded kettles and plant pots, the wheel arches of cars and tractors, or on the shelf of a garden shed.

So, while there is a bit of the streetfighter in its genes, the many other more endearing habits have ensured that the robin is without doubt one of our most familiar and best loved birds.