The real robin – fact and fiction

This red-breasted bird is closely associated with the festive season – yet our cute Christmas companion has a far darker and more fascinating side

20th December 2017
Robin in winter

Heart-warming television adverts for department stores and supermarkets are now as much a part of the festive season as holly, roast turkey and presents under the tree. And last year, Waitrose came up with a real Christmas cracker.

On the advert’s release date, eager audiences tuned in to see an uplifting tale featuring Britain’s favourite bird: the robin. Thanks to the magic of computer-generated graphics, we were able to follow this plucky little fellow as he undertook a hazardous migratory journey, from the frozen Arctic to an English garden. On arrival, he was welcomed by his human host – a little girl – and by a second robin, which happily shared a warm mince pie with its new friend.

Robin art ©Bridgeman

From the advertisers’ point of view, this 90-second epic was a huge hit. By Christmas Day itself, the film had been watched by more than three million people on YouTube, as well as millions more on TV. One critic admitted: “I absolutely lose it. Genuine tears… over a robin eating a pie.”

The story moved me to tears, too: but ones of frustration and rage. For of all the birds to choose for this tale of togetherness, the robin is the least likely candidate. Had this fictional robin really landed on a bird table after its long flight, the chances are that the incumbent bird would have chased it off pronto. For robins are notoriously territorial – even in the dead of winter. Male robins will always attack any intruder into their space, occasionally – though fortunately not often – fighting to the death. 

Robin feeding
In winter, robins need to eat almost a third of their bodyweight daily to survive. They are happiest eating high-value seeds such as kibbled sunflower hearts ©Jack Perks (

Even the journey depicted is a fantasy. Robins do migrate, but much earlier in the autumn. Some cross the North Sea from Scandinavia to Britain, while others (mostly females) leave Britain and cross the Channel to winter in France and Spain. 

The response from viewers and critics suggests that there is still a huge gulf between our image of this familiar bird and the reality. The day-to-day life of robins is both darker, and far more interesting, than the sugar-coated portrayal on TV adverts and Christmas cards, where robins are often depicted in groups, which rarely happens in nature.

Frost-weather friend

The association of robins with Christmas has its origins in biology and culture. Robins – in Britain at least – are birds of human habitations, especially gardens. These replicate their woodland-edge habitats, with the added bonus of gardeners digging up juicy worms. In winter, robins are hungry, so are more likely to come close to humans, whom they associate with food. And because they are feeling the cold, they fluff their feathers, so look even more endearing than usual.

Robins are strongly associated with Christmas ©Bridgeman

The cultural link between robins and Christmas happened by accident. Early postmen wore red uniforms, and thus were nicknamed ‘robins’. Someone had the bright idea of putting a robin carrying a letter in its beak on a Christmas card. The rest is history.

Bleak mid-winter

The reality faced by robins at this time of year is far less cosy. Small birds must eat between one-quarter and one-third of their body weight every single day, just to survive. And for many, it’s a losing battle. My aunt maintains that the same robin has been coming to her kitchen window for more than 10 years. But I’m afraid I have had to disillusion her. Robins rarely live longer than two years; indeed, the majority are dead by the time winter is over.

At this time of year, robins have just one aim: to survive until spring. If they do, they will be able to breed and pass on their genetic heritage to the next generation: the only immortality this short-lived bird can hope to achieve.

So for any individual robin, a white Christmas is little short of a disaster. Robins are ground feeders, hopping around lawns and flowerbeds, and beneath trees and shrubs, where their large eyes enable them to find their invertebrate food even in the lowest light. During a cold spell, when the earth freezes solid, locating food is trickier; and when a blanket of snow falls too, they face imminent death.

winter robin
Robins rarely live longer than two years ©Getty

Or at least they would, were it not for the very British habit of feeding birds in our gardens – which, incidentally, began in the sixth century when St Serf hand-tamed a robin by offering it morsels of food. Robins rarely come to hanging feeders – though in a recent hard winter I did see one clinging on for dear life – but happily visit ground feeders and bird tables. They often chase off birds much bigger than themselves to ensure they get enough to eat.

Given the life-or-death stakes faced by robins in winter, it is pretty astonishing that they can spare the time to sing. Yet they do: both male and female robins hold autumn and winter territories, which they defend against all-comers. And the males begin to sing their spring song very early in the New Year, in preparation for the breeding season to come. 

 So when you hear a robin at this time of year, remember the gap between the popular image and the harsh reality of their day-to-day lives. This is a feisty and fascinating bird, doing its very best to survive. And that, for me, is far more interesting than any advertising fantasy could ever be.

How to attract robins to your garden
garden robins
Robins love mealworms ©Alamy

Robins are fairly broadminded in their choice of food, but like all small birds in winter, obtaining energy is the key. So put out a range of high-value seeds (kibbled sunflower hearts are ideal), scattered on a bird table. Also put out balls of fat or ‘bird cake’ – a rich mixture of fat and seeds. Mealworms are a real treat – place them in a smooth-sided bowl so that they can’t escape. Winter is a good time to put up nestboxes: robins need open-fronted ones that are hidden away behind foliage or climbing plants so that they don’t attract the attention of cats.

Find out more about robins here.

Read about the Robin

The Robin cover


Stephen Moss is a naturalist and TV producer who worked for the BBC’s Natural History Unit for three decades. His latest book, The Robin: A Biography, is published by Square Peg (£10.99).


Main image ©Bridgeman

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