BTO: Spotty, brown and hungry . . .

Robin feeding young - BTO/John Harding
Robin feeding young - BTO/John Harding

Spot the robin? People are sometimes confused when they first come across a juvenile robin, writes the BTO’s Graham Appleton.

Robins are familiar garden birds. Everyone knows that they have red breasts and most people know that they can be fiercely territorial, even fighting to the death in some circumstances.

With these points in mind, a good way for a baby robin to avoid being attacked by an adult (perhaps even its own parent) is to wear a disguise.

As is the case for many species, juvenile robins look very different to adults; they may be the same rounded shape but the chest is spotty and brown.

Youngsters often leave their nest before they can fly properly so you may be surprised at just how short their tails appear, and there may even be the remains of the yellow ‘feed-me-here’ gape at the corner of the beak. At this early stage, parents will usually hide their brood in some undergrowth, where the spotty plumage helps to camouflage a vulnerable youngster, by breaking up its outline. Individuals soon become braver and more obvious, however, chasing their parents and noisily demanding food.

Within a month, a young robin will be independent of its parents, who may well have already started to raise another brood of chicks in a new nest. Youngsters try to avoid being noticed, both by feeding a lot under bushes and by continuing to wear their brown camouflage. In a few weeks, as new feathers grow in and the soft, fluffy juvenile feathers moult out, the first spots of red start to appear and by the age of four months it’s hard to tell the difference between an experienced adult and one of this year’s birds. This new, red uniform will be the one that’s proudly shown off in forthcoming fights over winter territories and when attracting a mate next spring.

Identifying young birds can be a bit of a challenge for new birdwatchers so it’s good to focus on shape and behaviour. If you get a chance, have a good look at young robins, dunnocks, song thrushes and blackbirds. They’re all spotty and brown but look at how they move around and focus on the shape, imagining longer wings and tails if they are fresh out of the nest. For the first two species, watch them hop; young robins bounce on long legs while dunnocks hop along like five-year-old children in a sack race. For the two thrushes, the clue is the shape; blackbirds are longer in the body and song thrushes more upright.

As they grow new feathers young birds all start to look more like their parents. Beware of starlings however; there’s a half-way stage when their heads are still grey and the body is dark. At this point they can look really odd – far more confusing than the bob-bob-bobbing robin.

NEXT TIME: The Egyptian goose – alien invader