Everything you need to know about the robin

Discover our favourite facts about robins, Britain's unofficial national bird.

Robin (Erithacus rubecula) filling the frame in profile with particularly striking orange breast and fine detail in feathers

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.

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To celebrate this delightful relationship with our feathered friends, here are our favourite facts about robins.

European robin (Erithacus rubecula) in the snow
A robin in the snow. © Andrew Howe/Getty

Do robins migrate?

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.

European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) singing from a perch
Singing robin. © Wouter_Marck/Getty

Where do robins go in summer?

As most robins don’t migrate, they don’t really disappear over the summer – they just become a bit less visible. When food is more readily available during the summer, robins are more likely to forage out of sight in the woods rather than coming to your bird table in the garden.

The exception is robins that spend the winter here to escape harsher weather in Russia and elsewhere in northern Europe. These robins migrate back to their breeding grounds in spring.

Robin in the snow
Robins are good at coping with cold and snow, but far northern Europe can still be a bit too much in winter. © Andrew Howe/Getty

How long do robins live?

A robin’s lifespan is just 13 months on average due to high mortality among robins in their first year. Once they’ve passed that barrier, they stand a much better chance of surviving for quite a while – the record currently stands at 19 years.

Why do robins have red breasts?

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.

Robin (Erithacus rubecula) in spring
Robin in spring. © Nataba/Getty

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.

Juvenile robin fledgling (Erithacus rubecula) perched on a twig
Juvenile robin fledgling that won’t have a red breast for a while yet. © Gary Chalker/Getty

Do female robins have red breasts?

Yes. Red breasts in female robins don’t seem to serve the same competitive purpose as they do in males, but they haven’t evolved to look significantly different from each other.

Robin perched on wooden bench in a British garden in spring
There’s no reliable way to tell whether a robin is male or female in the field. © Paul Mansfield

What do robins eat?

Robins eat a wide variety of food, including worms, seeds, nuts, suet, invertebrates and fruit. They’ll readily come to garden bird tables, especially in winter, and a combination of suet, mealworms and seeds will go down particularly well.

European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) on a bird table.
Robins will happily come to garden bird tables to feed. © abadonian/Getty

When do robins nest?

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

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

Robin nest with five eggs
Robin nest with five eggs. © Brais Seara/Getty

These 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.

Robin chicks hatch after being incubated for 13 days and fledge 14 days later.

Robin feeding a nest of hungry chicks in a plant tray at a garden centre.
Robin feeding a nest of hungry chicks in a plant tray at a garden centre. © Bill Allsopp/Loop Images/Getty

Where do robins nest?

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.

European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) at nest with chicks, in garden barbecue, Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, England, UK
A female robin with her chicks, nesting in a garden BBQ. © Les Stocker/Getty

Why are robins so tame?

British robins readily associate with gardeners, but elsewhere in Europe they are shy and retiring birds of thick woodland cover. In the UK, this confiding nature has existed for many centuries – the first record of a robin taking food from a human was in the 6th century.

It may just be because continental robins, the migratory northern populations of which winter around the Mediterranean, have long been exposed to hunting in the southern part of their range, leaving the species particularly skulking in its habits, while in Britain we do not share the tradition of trapping and shooting small birds.

Robin (Erithacus rubecula), Bird ringing - juvenile in mist net, Norfolk, UK
Robins have been hunted extensively in other parts of Europe. The one photographed here is caught in a mist net, but this robin is safe, as it’s been trapped by researchers to be ringed and will be released very soon. © Mike Powles/Getty

Why other British birds are less confiding than the robin may be linked to feeding behaviour. Robins take most of their food from the ground, including invertebrates disturbed by larger animals. They may view us in a similar way, as they scavenge worms unearthed by the gardener’s spade. This behaviour persists because they have nothing to fear.

Are robins active at night?

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.

An urban robin perched on wire at night
An urban robin perched on wire at night. © Dean Kennedy/EyeEm/Getty

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.

Various studies have shown that artificial lighting has led to an increase in the nocturnal activities of robins, with many urban robins now singing at night.

Singing European robin (Erithacus rubecula)
Robins sing at different times in the city. © Andyworks/Getty

Do robins prefer city lights or quiet nights?

Male robins are aggressive and very vocal in defending good-quality territory, and in advertising themselves to potential mates. But how might this be affected by robins living in the city?

Using a taxidermy robin and a record robin song, researchers from Southampton University compared how male robins in a city park defended their territories with those more affected by urban light and noise.

The robins with territories closer to lit paths and noisy roads showed less aggression to the fake robin and song, meaning they are lower down in the dominance hierarchy. The researchers concluded that artificial night-time lighting and more daytime noise resulted in robin territories that were of a lower quality.

European robin on an autumnal garden lawn
European robin on an autumnal garden lawn. © CreativeNature_nl/Getty

“This new study reminded me of one on robins 10 years ago,” said Dr Rupert Marshall, who studies birdsong at Aberystwyth University. “Although artificial light was present in all territories, it was urban noise which predicted the timing of the song, leading them to sing at night to avoid the din.”

Do robins keep feeding overnight?

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.

Robin on a garden spade.
Robin on a garden spade. © Ben Queenborough/Getty
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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.