Everything you need to know about the robin

Despite its cute appearance, this familiar and much-loved garden bird is highly territorial. 

Everything you need to know about the robin
Jill Pakenham/BTO


The robin is, without doubt, one of our favourite garden birds. It seems to trust us, staying close when we’re in the garden and even taking food from our hands.

This confiding nature has existed for many centuries – the first record of a robin taking food from a human was in the 6th century.

Unexpected migrant

Most British robins are sedentary, defending their territories year-round, with many females also establishing their own winter territories.

However, a handful head south to winter on the Continent, joining other robins passing through in the autumn on their way from Scandinavia and northern continental Europe.

Interestingly, it has been shown that many migrating robins are faithful to both their summer and winter territories, which may be many hundreds of kilometres apart.

Seeing red

The robin’s red breast is part of what endears it to us, providing a welcome flash of colour on a winter’s day.

But its evolutionary purpose is for a more serious role, with male robins using it to settle territorial disputes, especially during the breeding season.

A dispute starts with males singing at each other, trying to get a higher perch in order to show off their breast most effectively. This usually ends the challenge, with one individual deferring to the other.

Sometimes it can escalate to a fight, which can result in injury or death.

In some populations, up to 10 per cent of adult mortality is due to clashes over territory. This is the reason why robins are born without a red breast, and don’t acquire it until their first moult.

© John Harding/BTO

A robin feeds its young on a garden fence. © John Harding/BTO

Queer nesting habits

Robins are prolific breeders, often producing between three and five broods a year, each containing four or five eggs.

If the weather is mild, they can breed as early as January, though it is more usual for them to start in March.

Broods can overlap with the male feeding the chicks of one clutch while the female sits on the eggs of the next. This enables the population to bounce back readily from any overwinter population losses.

Robins will nest almost anywhere. Recorded nest sites include plant pots, a pigeonhole in a desk, the engine of a WWII plane, and in the body of a dead cat.

My personal favourite has to be a robin managing to make its nest on an unmade bed while the bed’s owner was downstairs having breakfast. Thankfully, the robin picked a tolerant person who left the nest undisturbed until the chicks fledged.

Street singers

Robins are one of the first birds to start the dawn chorus and one of the last to stop singing at night, even in the winter when they sing to defend their winter territories.

They are often mistaken for nightingales, despite being one of the most common night-time singers in Britain.

Nocturnal singing can be triggered by loud noises, like thunder or fireworks, a sudden shaking of the roosting tree, or by lights, such as floodlights, coming on.

It is thought that artificial lighting has led to an increase in the nocturnal activities of robins, with regular reports of them singing under street lights.

Night-time foraging

Robins don’t just sing in the evening, they are also adapted to foraging in low light levels.

Research from the BTO’s Shortest Day Survey suggests that this could be due to the fact that robins have relatively large eyes compared to their body size, meaning that more light can enter the eye.

This adaptation may have led to urban robins feeding under street lights.

It would be interesting to find out if light pollution affects how early they, and other species, feed in the morning, especially during the winter when birds have an urgent requirement to refuel after a cold winter’s night.

The British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) works in partnership with over 40,000 volunteer birdwatchers to chart the fortunes of UK birds.

Among the surveys that we coordinate is our popular Garden BirdWatch, the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world.

Each month we highlight a bird for you to look out for in your garden.

For more information about Garden BirdWatch or to speak to the Garden Ecology Team please email gbw@bto.org

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