National Robin Day

Why songbirds need your help in winter

With less light and colder temperatures winter can be a hard time for Robins and all songbirds.
Songbirds are suffering massive declines here in the UK and providing for them in winter is the least we can do to try to prevent further declines.


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Issues for birds in winter

Food supplies are limited, water sources are more scarce and freezing temperatures are difficult for many birds to weather.

There are 3 key challenges for songbirds in the colder months:
  1. 1. Food supply is limited, many flowers and plants die during this time and levels of insects are much lower. The limited supply available may become inaccessible when freezing temperatures freeze the ground and access to soil invertebrates becomes impossible etc.
  2. 2. Water sources are more scarce, small bodies of fresh water freeze and energy expended to melt them is too high a cost.
  3. 3. Freezing temperatures are difficult for many birds to weather. Birds must remain lightweight to be able to fly and so cannot carry much fat reserves. This means they must forage successfully and consistently to maintain their weight, which is problematic when food supply is limited during a cold snap.
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What happens in a cold winter?

Previous spells of bad weather in the UK have had devastating effects on bird species. Following the 1962-63 ‘Big Freeze’, large declines were seen in wrens, pied wagtails, mistle thrush and song thrush. Even in years of less inclement weather, but still with a lot of frost such as 1978-79, the mortality of pied wagtails and wrens was higher than normal.

Small bodied birds such as wrens, goldcrests and long tailed tits can be particularly badly hit by extreme cold and frosty weather. Birds below 10.5g have showed significant reductions in numbers following a harsh winter, as they do not have such high levels of fat reserves and struggle to keep warm.

To survive the harsh weather, songbird species have been known to put on weight to prepare for the cold winters, with many species reaching a peak during December and declining afterwards.

Frosty Facts

The winter months bring a range of challenges for UK songbirds. Here are a few examples for some favourite species:
Wren: During severe winter weather, the wren suffers high levels of mortality as is evident by recovery following the cold winter of 1978.  Survival rates for wrens are much lower the more snow days that they undergo during the winter months.
  1. Song thrush: Only a very small number leave Britain in winter. They largely feed on earthworms and other soil invertebrates which can be a problem when soils become hardened and freeze in cold weather. Layers of snow over the soil will also lessen the likelihood of successful foraging. First year song thrushes are particularly vulnerable during winter frosts and overall population decline is linked to first year survival.
Dartford Warbler: They are very site loyal and have been observed to stay in territories even when it is very snowy and other birds leave to find shelter. This same site fidelity has also been witnessed when the moors where they were resident caught fire and they still did not leave. They prey on invertebrates which become inaccessible in the soil when snow covers the ground. When their numbers bounce back following a harsh winter, they can settle in sub-optimal territories, where they suffer more during future winter conditions.


Robins are plentiful in the UK and are successful at adapting and surviving and adapting to the conditions. This makes them our perfect mascot to champion support for other less fortunate species.
However, a winter life is not plain sailing for a Robin. At -2°C, a lot of energy is needed just keep warm overnight. Experiments have shown that this would mean a loss of 8.9% of the mass in just one might bring an even harder day to follow to recoup lost fat.
Find out more about the robin.