Can You Keep a Robin as a Pet?
Around Christmas time, the whole country comes together and there’s a universal appreciation for one of my all-time favourite animals – the robin. And I’m not the only one who loves this charismatic little bird. Featured on countless Christmas cards every year, it has become a midwinter symbol of cheerfulness and goodwill. Here in the UK, our passion for the robin has caused it to become extraordinarily tame, and it isn’t uncommon to see one flitting between your feet, collecting crumbs, as you sit on a park bench. Those who have put more time in have even managed to encourage robins to eat from their hands. So if robins are tameable, small and pretty, and humans already keep many species of birds as pets – can we do the same with robins?
Many of us here at The Nature Nook have a passion for unusual pets. And if animal husbandry is your passion too, your quest for a unique pet may have you wondering if this friendly little bird could be bred in captivity. Well, it is true that birds can and do make great pets, if properly cared for. The budgerigar, for instance, is the third most common pet in the world after dogs and cats, and even as I write this my green-cheeked conure is sitting preening on the edge of my laptop, keeping me company. But a robin could never occupy this same place, and here’s why.
Despite my passion for unusual pets, my first and foremost concern has always been, and will always be, the welfare of all animals, wild or captive. This is why I understand that some animals simply can never be brought into our homes. Tigers and other big cats, as we’ve already discussed here at The Nature Nook, are a (hopefully) obvious example. But robins fall under this category as well, albeit for different reasons.
Some birds, it is true, can thrive in captivity, but this is certainly not the case for all species. The provision of warmth, safety, and readily available and nutritionally balanced food means that many birds can, if properly cared for, anticipate a longer lifespan in captivity than in the wild. However, a captive robin may have its lifespan slashed from a possible 19 years to just 13 months in captivity.
Robins can lay two or three clutches of five or six eggs in a single breeding season. This means there is a very large number of baby robins hatching every year. The reason why we aren’t completely overrun with robins is because the chicks have a very high mortality rate. The average life expectancy of a robin, therefore, is only just over a year. However, this is not reflective of the true potential lifespan of a robin, and those that get past that first difficult year can be expected to live considerably longer. The oldest robin ringed in Britain was 8 years old when it died, and one individual from continental Europe reached a whopping 19 years of age!
So why, in a warm and safe environment, can a robin not exceed, or at the very least match, their wild lifespan, as many other species do? Consider the habits of wild animals and imagine these being replicated in captivity. Birds of prey, for example, are particularly lazy birds that prefer comfort and warmth. They are also highly intelligent and can be trained to the point that an owner can allow them to fly freely outside, returning when called. This means a captive bird of prey can attain the same level of exercise as its wild counterparts, while actively enjoying the home comforts a human can provide. Birds of prey are also larger and predatory, which means they are far less prone to dying of stress, and don’t have such an extreme fear response to the presence of humans.
But a robin is a very small prey animal, and the presence of any predator, including humans, is extremely frightening to them. Unfamiliar environments can also be dangerously stressful to these territorial little birds. For these reasons, robins that have been captured in the wild have not adjusted well in captivity and are prone to premature death. Breeding efforts have been ineffective and have never resulted in a sustainable enough captive population to warrant a pet trade. This is by no means a bad thing – it simply means robins are to be exclusively interacted with outside in their natural habitat, which can be just as rewarding as having a pet at home.
So this Christmas I would implore anyone with an interest in wildlife to start interacting with a local robin, whether it be in your garden or your local park. With time and effort, these birds can be tamed to become your little wild friends. Small, tasty morsels will easily attract them to you, and if you gradually move the treats closer and closer, you may eventually be afforded the most joyous of rewards: a wild animal trusting you enough to sit on you. There is no pleasure quite like earning the trust of a bird.
On balance, robins absolutely cannot be kept in your home. They present a number of practical problems and, more importantly, it appears to me that it would simply be unethical. Even if we disregard for a moment any ethical quandaries, please note that it also illegal in the UK to take a bird from the wild and keep it in your home as a pet. Fortunately, if you love robins, you don’t need to put one in a cage to enjoy them. These birds perfectly show that the energy you give to wildlife can and will be returned in kind. In these uncertain, quarantined times, a relationship with wildlife can be extraordinarily beneficial for your mental health, and your efforts could help wild birds live through the cold winter months. But please, always remember to respect wild spaces and animals!
If you want to find out more about robins, keep an eye out for Jason’s next British Wildlife of the Week article, where he’ll be investigating where this bird’s association with Christmas, and the winter season in general, may have come from. And The Nature Nook will be continuing its festive theme the week after as well, as we look at Britain’s only free-ranging herd of reindeer.