Why do Robins have Red Breasts?

by Russ on January 19, 2013

Both male and female robins have a red-orange breast all year long.Robin Redbreast is often voted Britain’s favourite bird. It stands out a mile for it’s looks and it’s cheeky and confident attitude has won over our hearts for generations. But why does the robin actually have a red breast?

Both the male and the female robin have a reddish-orange breast all year round, yet it stands out much more in winter especially when everything is covered in white snow. For a small bird the last thing you need is a large red target on your chest making you perfect prey for predators like the sparrow hawk or domestic cat.

The Golden Pheasant male is a good example of bright and long feathers being used to attract a mate.     But that may be exactly one reason why the robin has a red breast. With birds right across the planet, feather size and colour is one of the biggest factors in choosing a mate. One theory to explain this obsession suggests it’s to do with predation. If a bird has large bright feathers, predators will be able to spot it more easily. This means that in the breeding season, weaker males will have been easily picked off and the only males that are left are those that were fit and fast enough to escape predators. Showing off bright colours could be described as the bird equivalent of flexing your muscles.

The Mallard is a perfect example of a colourful male with a duller-coloured female.Females on the other hand cannot afford to be colourful because they have to incubate their eggs on a nest and are very vulnerable to hunters during this time. To tackle this, most female birds have brilliant camouflage (often a dull brown) to hide from predators. So why don’t female robins follow this rule?

When the female robin sits on the nest, she will usually be within thick undergrowth or a garden hedge. Her chest will be pressed against her eggs and therefore out of view. The only part of the bird now showing is her back which is a dull brown colour – excellent for camouflage.

Across the bird world, wherever possible, females seem to prefer to look exactly the same as the male. Robins, blue tits and great tits all share this characteristic. So perhaps the robin’s red breast simply boils down to being able to tell which bird is the same species as you.

In the Last Saturday Blog

We talked about when exactly snowdrops flower. Matt Davies got in touch saying that although there was no sign of snowdrops yet, the daffodils are already coming up, something that seems to be the case right across the North West. Keep an eye on them through the current cold spell to see if the freezing temperatures has an effect on this year’s Daffodil bloom. Many thanks to Matt.

Don’t forget…

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Take care, and stay on the wild side.

Russ

 

Pictures provided by wildlife photographer John Barlow.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Sheridan July 4, 2013 at 9:23 am

I have noticed in my back garden a robin red breast, without a red breast. I thought at first it may be a young bird, but it appears fully grown and is on its own and feeding itself. Last year a starling visited the garden. It had a lot of white feathers all over it. On researching this I found that it was not uncommon. I’m not a professional bird watcher, but I do like to feed them in the garden and sit in my kitchen and watch them. I have seen this robin several times.

Reply

Russ July 30, 2013 at 10:42 am

Hi Bill,

Thanks for getting in touch!

This is an odd one, because I’ve never heard of a robin with no breast. You’re right that young robins are brown all-over but their feathers are more dappled so they can be easily distinguished from the adults.

Do you have a picture of the bird in question?

All the best,

Russ

Reply

Shirley January 19, 2016 at 6:37 pm

I’ve seen 2 robins together in my garden today. Is this unusual.

Reply

Russ H January 25, 2016 at 11:44 am

Hi Shirley. Two robins together in winter can be a pair or it could be that your garden lies on the border between two rival robins. In which case you could see them together quite often as they try to ensure their neighbour doesn’t enter their territory.
Many thanks,
Russ

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