The robin redbreast is one of Britain’s most recognisable and iconic birds and is often associated with the festive period.
Our expert robin guide looks at the best places to see in Britain, facts about the species, including diet, nesting and migration habits, plus how to attract robins to your garden.
History of the robin
The robin is surrounded by folklore. In some old country traditions, robins arrived in the stable soon after Jesus was born and, while Joseph was gathering wood, fanned the dying fire with their wings to keep it alight. The Virgin Mary awarded them with their fiery breast as a reward. In old British religions the Holly King of Winter – a wren – was killed by the Oak King of Summer – a robin – on the winter solstice. On the summer solstice the Holly King had his revenge.
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Best places to see robins in the UK
Unlike some British bird species which migrate annually, it is possible to see robins all year round. In the UK robins can be seen in parks, woodland, hedgerows – and if you’re lucky your garden or allotment.
Robins rarely come to hanging feeders so opt for a feeding table to attract robins/Credit: Getty Images
What do robins eat?
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.
Put any feed for garden birds high enough to keep them further away from predators, such as cats or foxes/Credit: Getty Images
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.
How long do robins live?
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. 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.
Do robins attack other robins?
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.
Both sexes of robins have red breasts and both puff out their chests as a sign of aggression. In breeding season, males can be particularly ferocious – attacking each other bloodily and even, very occasionally, killing a rival.
Robins are notoriously territorial – two redbreasts square up for a fight/Credit: Getty
Do robins migrate?
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.
European robin (Erithacus rubecula) perched on tree stump/Credit: Getty Images
When did the robin become associated with Christmas?
The robin became Britain’s bird of Christmas largely because Victorian postmen, who wore red tunic, were known as robin redbreasts. Robins began to appear on Christmas cards and other festive missives as a symbol of the red breasted messenger.
The robin became Britain’s bird of Christmas largely because Victorian postmen/Credit: Getty
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.
Do robins sing through winter?
The robin is one of our few bird species to sing throughout winter. Both sexes sing and this is thought to be a way of maintaining territories ready for the breeding season.
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.
Even the winter months brings out the chorister in the robin/Credit: Getty
Where do robins nest?
Robins generally nest in banks or tree crevices, but they also often choose strange sites in gardens and houses, including inside letter boxes and car wheel arches.
European or British Robin, Erithacus rubecula, with grubs in its beak feeding its young in a garden nesting box, Painswick, Gloucestershire, UK/Credit: Getty Images
Robin eggs are pale but heavily freckled with rust as if exposed to dams.
When did the robin become Britain’s national bird?
The robin was voted Britain’s national bird in 2015. This was first decided in 1961 when the International Council for Bird Preservation were set the task of choosing Britain’s national bird. Instead of opening the debate up to public vote as in 2015, the decision was made after a long correspondence in The Times newspaper.
A hopeful robin hunting for garden worms/Credit: Getty
What’s the difference between British and European robins?
In Europe, the robin is a more timid bird than in Britain, where it regularly followers gardeners (especially when they’re digging) in the hope they might turn up a tasty worm. Back in continental Europe, the robin has been observed following wild boar, which also dig the soil in search of tubers and roots. No doubt, Forest of Dean robins are doing the same with the growing population of wild boar there.
How to attract robins to your garden
Put out high quality seeds and feed
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 or in a bird feeder.
Birds need a mixture of fat and seeds for energy in the cold winter months/Credit: Getty
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.
Make your own tasty bird feeder and help garden birds this winter (Getty)
On your next trip outside, keep an eye out for a nice sturdy log. With a few quick drills and screws, the old tree part can become the feeding platform for garden birds.
Turn an old log into a feeding station for garden birds
It’s the perfect project for getting you outside using your hands, with the added value of offering support for local wildlife.
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.
Hang nest boxes for garden birds to seek sanctuary in the cold winter months/Credit: Getty Images
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).