The Robin’s Red Breast

Today’s blog comes from ecology graduate Tom Harper. Tom loves being in nature and learning about the species that make up different ecosystems.

If you’re like me, you’ll be itching to get outside at the moment, exploring the wealth of nature Northumberland and the UK has to offer. But don’t worry – you can! By craning your neck to look out of the window and by taking your time to listen carefully you will see our feathered friends. Over the next few weeks I’ll be talking about some of the birds you will be likely to see in your garden.

The robin is a little bird, full of character, that has long been associated with our gardens, boldly coming close, seemingly fearless and even known to feed out of the hand. Its distinguishing feature is the large patch of red feathers on its breast, a welcome sight in the greys and browns of winter. But why does it have a large red breast? Isn’t this like having a target pinned on your chest in the eyes of predators?

In the kingdom of birds, usually the males are brightly coloured or have exaggerated features. This is to look pretty for the less colourful ladies who choose the most handsome and strongest males to produce offspring with a high chance of survival. But female robins have almost exactly the same physical appearance. So that means red patches aren’t for sexual selection right?


Highly territorial birds

Well not completely. Researchers have found that the older the male robin the larger the patch of red. This indicates to other robins that the individual with a bigger patch of red is better at surviving, doing a better job to avoid predators, important when the robins choose mates.

But likely the most important reason is that the patch of red feathers serves as a warning to other robins to stay off their patch. Robins are highly territorial birds, and may wish to defend an area because it has good food and water provisions, or is a good place to find mates and raise their young. And because older birds have larger patches, younger birds may stay away because they know older birds are more experienced in surviving… and fighting.

But perhaps the most pressing question is why do we call them robin red breasts – surely they should be called robin orange breasts? Because when robins were first named we had no such word for the colour orange! It wasn’t until Tudor times when oranges were first imported that the word orange was used to refer to a colour, by which time the robin had long since been called robin red breast.