European robins are a familiar sight in gardens across the UK, with their cheerful presence and upbeat, tuneful song. However, it may come as a surprise that the cheeky red-breasted visitor we think returns to feed on our bird table each winter, probably isn’t one and the same bird after all due to the high mortality rates and low life expectancy levels of the species. But just how long can a European robin be expected to live?
On average, robins live for around two years, although some research puts their typical lifespan at just 13 months. The first year of a robin’s life carries a high risk of mortality; however, if a juvenile robin survives its first year, its chance of a much longer survival dramatically increases.
It is estimated that just over 70 percent of young robins will die in their first year. A major factor is inexperience, and being unable to fend for themselves sufficiently or protect themselves from being caught by predators.
Young robins that successfully make it to the end of their first year stand a far greater chance of living a significantly longer life. Experience gained during that first year serves to equip them with the survival skills necessary to find food when it is in short supply and to learn to anticipate and escape predators.
Below, we explore various factors that may determine whether a young robin’s life is cut short prematurely, or whether it will survive beyond its first year.
In the wild, robins usually live for around 2 years
Juvenile robins have a high mortality rate, with just over one in four surviving beyond the end of their first year. Once a robin has passed its first year, its life expectancy increases significantly. Life expectancy varies depending on whether a robin is living in the wild or is in captivity.
Robins that have survived their first year may expect to live for between two and five years on average, although longer lifespans are not unusual. Conditional factors including climate, availability of food, and secure nesting sites will all influence just how long a robin’s life will last.
Thanks to banding programmes, we know that some wild European robins have greatly exceeded their predicted life expectancy, reaching 17 and even 19 years.
Perched robin singing from a perch in the morning
Keeping a robin in captivity theoretically eliminates the presence of predators and hazards that may otherwise be major factors in limiting or reducing the life expectancy in the wild. With such risks alleviated, and with monitored temperatures and regular provision of food, it would be natural to think that captive robins are given a major boost at survival. But this is not necessarily always the case.
Even though they may appear to be friendly and at ease with human company, European robins are incredibly nervous birds and startle easily. They do not cope well with unfamiliar environments and disturbances, and the constant presence of potential predators (humans) would prove highly stressful.
Attempts to breed robins in captivity have been largely unsuccessful, and wild-caught birds have not transitioned well to a life away from their natural environments, experiencing premature death and shortened life expectancy.
The leading cause, representing up to 50 percent of all robin deaths, is attacks by pet cats. In the UK, as many as 1.5 million unsuspecting robins a year are estimated to be killed in this way.
Humans and the manmade environment are also major contributors to the robin mortality rates, both directly and indirectly. Birds accidentally flying into windows or being struck by vehicles account for a number of robin deaths annually. Other fatalities may be more deliberate, caused by shooting, poisoning and nest destruction by landowners.
Natural causes, including starvation and stress, also account for a proportion of deaths of European robins each year, particularly in immature birds who lack the experience to successfully navigate survival.
Domestic cats are a major threat to robins
European robins raise at least two broods a year, with three being fairly common and four not being unheard of. This high birth rate is necessary to maintain the species’ population numbers, to balance out the high juvenile mortality rate.
Although the lifespan of European robins is relatively short, by raising multiple broods each year, the numbers of young birds potentially reaching breeding age is maximised, ensuring the survival of the species. And with nearly 7 million breeding pairs of European robins in the UK alone, the survival of the species is certainly secure.
Pet cats are by far the most common predator of European robins, with domestic moggies being responsible for around 50 percent of robin deaths. Sparrowhawks and other predatory garden birds will also prey on both adult robins and take young birds from nests, when the opportunity arises.
European Robin Red Breast (Erithacus rubecula) in flight, foraging for food in the forest
The oldest ringed robin found to date was native to the Czech Republic and reached a record-breaking 19 years and 4 months. Another individual bird, recorded in Poland, reached the grand old age of 17 years and 3 months.
European robins generally have three feeding periods a day – morning, afternoon and early evening – in order to have the energy they need to survive.
As is the case with other small birds, European robins have very limited fat reserves and in extremely cold conditions, they can lose around 10 percent of their body weight in one night. When the ground is frozen, making foraging for food more difficult than in summer months, a robin’s health can decline very quickly.
A robin eating an insect from a suet filled coconut
European robins are resident in the UK and Ireland all year round, although a small number may migrate to Mediterranean Europe in winter to escape the extreme cold weather. UK robin populations may in turn rise slightly in winter months, with visiting robins from Scandinavia and Russia migrating there to avoid the harshest conditions in their native countries.
The most severe winter conditions can be hugely challenging and even fatal for robins in some cases, especially in prolonged periods with freezing temperatures. Robins can potentially live off their fat reserves for no more than a couple of days when a cold spell hits. When such conditions prevail for longer, urban robins depend heavily on food left out on garden bird tables to survive.
European Robin perched in a tree during the winter
Robins are protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and their conservation status is currently green, meaning that they are rated of least concern. There are an estimated 6.7 million breeding pairs of European robins across the UK.
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