The European robin was voted as the UK’s ‘national bird’ in 2015, described as being “woven into the nation’s psyche”.
Aside from being much-loved in the UK, the European robin is distributed across practically all of Europe, stretching up to Scandinavia in the north, deep into Russia in the east, and the Mediterranean in the south. Robins are classically depicted in the snow on Christmas cards, but do they migrate?
European robins are a partially migratory species. They’re capable of remaining in cold habitats in the winter, but some choose to migrate. As a rule of the thumb, the further north you go, the more likely robins are to migrate.
Most occupants of Scandinavia migrate, for example, except for a few populations on the southern coastline. On the other hand, most robins in the UK are residents and don’t migrate at all. Likewise, in much of southern Europe, robins rarely migrate.
Those few robins in the UK that do migrate usually head for France, Spain and the Mediterranean, but north Africa also hosts many wintering robins from across Europe. Visitors from Scandinavia and Russia also boost the UK’s winter robin population.
Female robins are more likely to migrate than males, perhaps because the males maintain their territorial instincts over the winter months and prefer to stay put. The European robin is a cold-hardy bird, and migration is likely motivated by food availability.
Robins are partially migratory, with most of the UK population being residents all year round
The UK’s large robin population is mainly sedentary, meaning the birds stay in the UK all year round. A small proportion of robins head for France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Germany.
However, Robins are territorial and cold-hardy birds - many choose to stay in their territories throughout winter.
Female robins are more likely to migrate than male robins because they have weaker territorial instincts. In some studies, over 70% of male robins were observed to be sedentary and non-migratory, whereas for females, it was about 50:50. Robins that migrate are unlikely to fly long distances, but some individuals end up in Spain and the Mediterranean.
Overall, the vast, vast majority of robins stay in the UK all year round. Robins that choose to migrate are in a slim majority (<5% of the total population, by some estimates).
Male robins are fiercely territorial, and once they establish a territory, they tend to remain in it or near it for much of their lives.
Much of the UK’s robin population rarely stray further than 5km from their breeding territories.
When robins migrate, many return to the same territories every year. This doesn’t necessarily mean they return to the same nests, but anecdotal reports often mention that the same robins return to the same garden year after year.
Close up of a robin on a wooden bird feeder
There’s little information on how robins migrate, but it'd be safe to say that they're likely to travel alone. Robins are not social or gregarious birds - they rarely flock together to roost or migrate.
Females are more likely to migrate than males and head off at the end of summer and the start of autumn, around October and November. Most migratory journeys are short - just 100km or so. Some journeys are considerable, taking robins across the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the English Channel.
European robins migrate in autumn, around October and November.
Robins spend high summer moulting (July to August), and are seldom seen during this time. After moulting, some robins prepare for migration. The females are more likely to migrate and leave the UK for France and Spain in October and November.
Robin about to to take off, from a cliff
European robins return from migration as early as January, which is when male robins scout for territories and nesting sites.
In late January, the male robin courts females, and nest building may commence shortly after. After establishing territories in January and February, some pairs of robins mate as early as March, but breeding peaks in April to May.
Robins routinely migrate from northern Europe, particularly Russia and Scandinavia.
Migration is usually driven by food availability - robins primarily eat invertebrates which become harder to access as the ground freezes over. European robins don’t usually travel far, but some individuals end up in the Mediterranean, Spain, Portugal and even North Africa.
Overall, these are cold-hardy birds that aren’t fussed by the cold. As a result, robin migration is only sporadic.
Close up of a robin with a worm in it's beak, for the chicks
European robins migrate throughout much of Europe, extending south to Iberia, North Africa and the Mediterranean.
Many leaving western Russia and Scandinavia end up in the UK, Belgium, France and Germany. In the east, robins from eastern Europe migrate as far south as the Mediterranean and North Africa. Significant populations of European robins end up in North Africa in winter, probably from all over Europe.
European robins migrate across much of Europe, ending up all across southern Europe; southern France, Spain, Italy and much of the Mediterranean.
Some robins migrate as far as Africa. The UK’s robin population is vastly boosted by migrants from Russia and Scandinavia, whereas some robins will leave the UK for France and Belgium.
Robin perched on a branch
European robins crossing the North Sea and the English Channel have no option but to fly non-stop.
European robins are not sociable birds and rarely form flocks. Consequently, they probably migrate alone in almost every instance.
In fact, robins are often observed chasing or even attacking each other or even other birds! As such, European robins probably don’t migrate in flocks.
European Robin foraging for food in its natural habitat
European robins are only partially migratory. Some populations as far north as Scandinavia don’t migrate at all, whereas others across central and eastern Europe head towards the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Robins in the UK rarely migrate - one study found that as few as 5% emigrate to another country, with around 30% dispersing across their immediate environments.
In winter, some populations of European robins migrate south to France, Spain, the Mediterranean and North Africa.
However, many robins don’t migrate at all, and become more reclusive in their native range. In the winter, robins often visit back garden bird feeders in pursuit of food, or may otherwise retreat into the deep woodlands where food and shelter are abundant.
A robin bathing in a bird bath
If they migrate, European robins return to their territories in late winter - around January and February. After the breeding season peaks around May, robins become more reclusive throughout summer.
In late summer (August and July), robins moult their spring plumage, becoming quiet and reclusive.
Robins probably migrate during both day and night. European robins possess excellent night vision, which is how they manage to forage the night. So if you’ve ever heard birds singing at 10:00 or 11:00pm, all throughout the night and into the morning, there’s a good chance it’s a robin!
European robins undergo a full moult at the end of summer, around July and August. Adult robins lose and regrow practically all their feathers during this moulting period. As a result, Robins are quiet and reclusive during this time and are seldom seen - they’re resting after raising their chicks!
In the autumn, robins emerge from their moult with fresh, shiny plumage.
European Robin starting to moult
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