A winter star: the life and times of the robin, the nation’s favourite bird


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With its radiant red breast and beautiful song, the robin is synonymous with the festive season. Josh Kubale, of the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, looks at the life and times of the nation’s favourite bird

Robins are one of Britain’s most familiar and ubiquitous birds and can be seen throughout Hertfordshire year-round as regular visitors to our gardens, parks and allotments.

The nations’ favourite

Since the 1960s, the European robin (Erithacus rubecula) has been Britain’s unofficial national bird. In a vote this year, the robin beat the barn owl, blackbird and wren to be crowned the nation’s favourite. The poll of our top 10 favourite birds, organised by ornithologist and BBC Springwatch presenter, David Lindothe, saw more than 200,000 people cast their votes. The robin won a commanding victory with 34 per cent of the vote.

Christmas bird

Since Victorian times, the robin has been closely associated with Christmas. Victorian postmen, who often worked over Christmas and even delivered presents and cards on Christmas Day, wore red tunics as part of their uniform and were nicknamed ‘robin redbreasts’ after the birds. The association earned the robin a place on early Christmas cards and so started the popular festive trend.

Male or female?

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Unlike most bird species, male and female robins are identical – both have thecharacteristic red breasts and brown wings. However, robins are not born with red breasts. When juveniles fledge from the nest they are mottled brown all over and don’t get their distinctive red breasts until they are about six months old. Both parents take responsibility when feeding and looking after their chicks until they are two weeks old when the young can fly and become fully independent.

Singing star

The robin has a distinctive and beautiful call. Robins will sing year-round, apart from a short period in late summer when they are moulting. During spring, the male robin will call to attract a mate while during winter both male and female robins will sing to mark their territory. Robins are often active in half-light when few other birds are about and tend to be among the earliest birds to start the dawn chorus and one of the last to stop singing in the evening. In urban landscapes, robins can be confused by streetlights and sing regularly at night.

Town & country

The robin’s natural habitat is woodland but the species has adapted to live in parks and residential gardens where the structure provided by garden plants provides both nesting and roosting opportunities. Perhaps the greatest asset of urban living is the abundance of food provided by people. Robins are inquisitive and will often watch gardeners at work digging, hoping to pick up a worm or titbit in freshly-turned soil.

Keep off my patch

Robins are highly territorial birds and during the winter will defend feeding opportunities in gardens against almost any other bird that comes close. That bright red breast is their prime territorial marker. Research has shown that robins will even attack toys with red breasts such is their overwhelming instinct to see off rivals to their patch. While singing reaches a peak as the breeding season approaches around March time, robins will sing throughout the year to mark their territories.

Feeding our winter birds

During winter it can be hard for robins and other birds to find natural sources of food. We can help birds that visit our gardens during the season by putting out food and water for them. The provision of supplementary food has been shown to improve overwinter survival in a number of species. In winter, birds require high-energy foods to maintain fat reserves to survive the frosty nights. A good mix of food such as black sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts, niger seed and peanuts will provide them with the energy they need. It’s important to balance the amount of food left out against the number of birds coming in to feed. To avoid unwanted viistors such as rats, try not to leave uneaten food out. Also make sure feeders are clean, to guard against infection to birds.