Britain’s iconic robin redbreast is especially under threat this winter due to declining winter temperatures, wildlife experts have warned.
A combination of disappearing hedgerows, declining food resources and harsh cold spells due to the La Niña phenomenon this winter means robins are relying on bird feeders in the public’s back gardens more than ever.
The robin (Erithacus rubecula), which was officially voted ‘the UK’s national bird in 2015 and is considered an emblem of the festive season, can lose up to 10 per cent of its body weight in a single winter night while attempting to keep warm.
But unless it can feed well and replenish its reserves every day, a cold spell could be fatal, according to wildlife charity People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES).
Robin numbers in our gardens have already decreased 32 per cent since 1979, the RSPB found, and without supplementary bird feeding in people’s gardens, up to half of robins in Britain could die of cold and starvation in a winter season.
Robins can eat suet pellets, mealworms, dried fruit, crushed peanuts and even remains of roast potatoes from Christmas dinner, as long as they’re not too greasy.
Without supplementary bird feeding in gardens, up to half of robins could die of cold and starvation
ROBIN NUMBERS IN THE UK
The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch results for this year showed robin numbers decreased 32 per cent since 1979 – a figure that’s unchanged since 2019.
Big Garden Birdwatch is the charity’s annual citizen science project, which requires the help of the general public to count bird numbers.
Other sources suggest they are not in a nationwide decline compared to figures earlier in the 20th century.
The British Trust for Ornithology says the robin increased 52 per cent between 1967 and 2017.
Robins have increased markedly since the mid 1980s having been previously set back earlier by a succession of cold winters, it says.
‘With their striking red breasts robins are one of the UK’s favourite birds,’ Charlotte Ambrose wildlife advisor at RSPB, told MailOnline.
‘For many people, spotting robins feeding in the garden or local park will be among their first memories of connecting with nature.
‘Up until now birds have been able to find natural foods available to them like insects and seeds, but the cold weather means that they will be more inclined to move into our gardens to find refuge.
‘You can make a real difference and improve their chances of survival, as well as being rewarded by great views of wildlife in your garden or outside space.’
Robins like eating insects and worms, but also feed on nuts and fruit such as berries from the hedgerows – however, around 50 per cent of British hedgerows have been lost since WWII.
‘Hedgerows are bejewelled with hawthorn berries, rose hips, sloes and a myriad of other fruits in the autumn, and can be a veritable larder for birds and small mammals preparing for winter,’ said Megan Gimber, key habitats project officer at PTES.
UK charity SongBird Survival says robins and other species – tree sparrows, willow tits, linnets and tree pipits – are in great danger of becoming extinct, especially in winter with depleted food supplies.
This winter, the Met Office has warned of the effects of La Niña – the large-scale cooling of the ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean – leading to variations in global weather.
WHAT IS LA NINA?
La Niña occurs in the Pacific Ocean every three to seven years.
The weather pattern causes abnormally strong winds, making the ocean colder.
This small change in temperature can trigger local weather patterns globally, including torrential rain, plunging temperatures and cyclones.
Rain clouds normally form over warm ocean water. La Niña blows all of this warm water to the western Pacific.
This means that places like Indonesia, Australia and southern Africa can get much more rain than usual.
It typically unfolds during the end of autumn or early winter.
‘La Niña has a profound effect on weather across the globe with us even seeing impacts that extend across the UK,’ said Professor Adam Scaife, head of long range prediction at the Met Office.
‘In late autumn and early winter it historically promotes high pressure in the mid-Atlantic, which stops Atlantic weather systems from delivering mild air to the UK, and therefore can allow cold conditions to intensify.’
Therefore, food, water and shelter in the form of nest boxes for birds visiting a back garden can make a difference to robin survival rates.
Robins prefer to forage and feed off the ground, so by placing a small food tray full of food close to a shrub tree or perch, Brits can encourage them to make a garden their home for the season.
After time, robins can quickly become confident in human presence and feeding from the hand is not unknown, providing the perfect opportunity to catch some festive photographs for next year’s Christmas cards.
The RSPB suggests feeding robins calorie-rich foods like mixed seed, sunflower seed, nyjer seed and good quality peanuts, or even make homemade fat cakes to hang off a branch.
Kitchen scraps like mild grated cheese, bruised fruit that’s not gone mouldy, leftover pastry bits (especially made with suet) and unsalted bits of bacon rind chopped up into small chunks are also good options.
Robins feed on insects (especially beetles), worms, fruit, seeds, suet, crushed peanuts, sunflower hearts and raisins
FOOD FOR ROBINS
The best foods to put out for robins are:
– Mealworms and calcium worms, which are especially beneficial because they are insectivores
– Fatty foods like suet pellets
– Special high protein robin blends
– Meaty kitchen scraps
– Mild cheese
– Cake and biscuit crumbs
– Dried fruit
– Peanuts (shredded or crushed)
However, some foods around the kitchen at Christmas can dangerous for birds, such as cooking fat from the roast, which could stick to feathers and stop them from being waterproof.
‘As a general rule it’s better to steer clear of cooked meats and fats to put out for birds,’ said wildlife expert Sean McMenemy.
‘This is because it mostly has too much salt, quickly turns rancid and attracts rodents.
‘While avoiding salty foods or liquid fats, a few roasties put out for the birds on a cold day will delight them.
‘Just make sure you pick up any uneaten leftovers before nightfall and safely dispose of them before they go off and become toxic or attract pest species.’
Other foods to avoid are dried coconut, cooked porridge oats, milk, and mouldy or salted food.
Fresh water for drinking and bathing is also important this season, meaning bird tables will make a big difference to the survival of robins in urban and suburban areas.
Garden owners can float a small ball, such as a ping-pong ball, on the surface of the water in a bird bath to stop it from freezing over.
RSPB’s website also has guidelines for making a wooden nestbox, to give robins a home in the winter.
European robin, Erithacus rubecula, with grubs in its beak feeding its young in a garden nesting box, Painswick, Gloucestershire, UK
Nest boxes, which will be used as night roosting sites as well as places for nesting in the spring, should be placed at least seven feet from dense vegetation in order to prevent surprise attacks from cats.
These boxes are frequently communal, the RSPB told MailOnline, with many residents packing in together for extra warmth – the record number of birds found in one box is 63 wrens.
But even letting dense hedges such as privet or hawthorn, or festive ivy or holly, to grow will provide a place for robins to roost and shelter.
It’s also worth ensuring that the back garden isn’t too pristine or tidy, as some wild undergrowth will encourage the proliferation of insects and help robins find food.
RSPB says that turning a garden into a bird home and making sure it’s filled with food now will improve chances of a successful Big Garden Birdwatch next month – the charity’s annual citizen science project, running from January 29-31.
Brits signed up to the project need to spend an hour counting the birds they see in a garden, from a balcony or in a local park to help RSPB provide a comprehensive estimate of the country’s bird numbers.
MAKE A FAT CAKE FOR BIRDS THIS WINTER
Brits can provide an excellent full-fat winter food for birds by making homemade bird cakes or fat balls.
All that’s needed is lard or suet (at room temperature), a handful of bird seed, a handful of peanuts (unsalted), grated mild cheese or raisins, dry leftovers (like bread or cake), old clean yoghurt pots and string.
Melt the lard or suet slightly if it’s chilled and hard as it needs to be room temperature.
Use one part fat to two parts dry mixture and mix all ingredients together in a bowl.
Make a small hole in the bottom of each of your yoghurt pots, thread a length of string through the hole and tie a knot to secure it.
Pack each pot tightly with the mixture and put it in the fridge until it’s set hard.
Once it’s fully set, cut away the yoghurt pot and recycle it. It should come off OK if the mixture is cold enough.
Tie the string over a tree or shrub branch and (make sure to pick a spot that’s out of reach from the pet cat).
If the fat cake is a bit crumbly, next time add a little more fat and a little less dry mixture.
Fat cakes are a good help to birds in the lean months, but even better is to create a wildlife-friendly garden, according to the National Trust.
‘Have plants in your garden that carry fruit, nuts, seeds and berries as they’re good sources of food for birds and mammals,’ said National Trust wildlife adviser Jo Hodgkins.
‘Leave seed heads on over winter so birds can eat them and insects can over-winter in hollow stems.
‘Having wild areas and log piles which harbour insects will also help hedgehogs and other small mammals over winter.’
Source: The National Trust