Bleak Christmas for robins after 'disastrous' breeding season

The Christmas robin traditionally brings joy to bleak winter days. But they may be harder to spot in gardens this year after a "disastrous" breeding season, the British Trust for Ornithology has warned.

A cold, wet spring meant birds bred later and many fledglings failed to survive, the charity said.

This year "proved to be a disastrous breeding season", its report found, with 18 of the 24 species tracked producing fewer young compared to the five-year average.

For two species, the blackcap and great tit, this was the worst breeding year since the trust began its nest recording scheme in the early 1960s.

The cold, wet spring is thought to have led fewer baby birds to fledge and also affected survival rates once they had left the nest, the Trust said.

Migrants birds did better in the North  

In May the UK experienced 171 per cent of its average rainfall for the month, with conditions particularly poor in the south east of England.

Most returning migrant birds did better in the north of the UK as a result of a warmer summer, though results were similar across Britain and Ireland for birds that did not migrate, the report found.

Lee Barber, demographic surveys officer at the BTO, said initial counts were "promising" as many migrant species returned to the UK in good numbers after wintering further south, and resident species were also recorded at healthy levels.

Dave Leech, head of the ringing and nest recording schemes, said: "Those of you with nest boxes in your garden may have noticed that the blue and great tits using them started to lay a few days later this year.

"Delays were even more pronounced for many migrant birds, including my own study species the reed warbler, and pied flycatcher, which started to breed almost a week later than the typical date.

"In some cases a late start can be beneficial, helping birds to track the advancing emergence of their insect prey but that was not to be the case in 2021.”

The longer-term impact of the poor spring will depend on how cold this winter is, Mr Leech added.

"There will clearly be fewer young birds in the countryside this Christmas but if conditions stay mild, they may survive well, particularly as there will be fewer competitors to share their limited resources with.

"That could really help to reduce the impact of a 2021 breeding season to forget."