Peter Land’s very informative article on the UK robin (Fairfield Matters, February 2023), coupled with the sight of a couple of robins hopping around in my garden over the last few weeks, has reminded me that now is the time to think once more about training a robin. As Peter pointed out in his article, these birds are remarkably tame and can be persuaded (with a little patience) to eat mealworms from your hand. I first tried this over ten years ago when I lived in West London and had a very tame robin visiting my garden on a daily basis.
Around that time my 10 year old son’s English teacher, in a bid to encourage his class to read more, had asked the children to each have a picture taken of them reading a book in an interesting or unusual situation. My son’s picture was of him, in the garden, with the tame robin standing on the open book he was reading (with a juicy mealworm carefully placed in the join between the pages).
I moved to Fairfield about two years ago, and last summer I set about training a robin in my garden here. This one wasn’t quite as confident as my old friend in London – Peter did say that town and city robins are the tamest ones – but I did manage to get it to eat off the back of my hand if not the front. So how exactly do you train a robin?
There’s a good chance of success if a breeding pair has a clutch of hungry chicks to feed, so spring to early summer is a good time to try. Last June I had a robin doing multiple round trips in succession from my garden to its nest, with a beak full of mealworms on each homeward run. After a week or two, this particular robin would be waiting for me in the garden each morning, or would miraculously appear each time I went outside.
Another tip is to use live mealworms (if you’re not squeamish, that is). Robins will eat the dried ones, which are readily available in garden centres, but those are nowhere near as appealing as the soft and juicy live ones. You can find live mealworms in large pet stores, in the reptile food section. A small tub will cost a few pounds and will last several weeks at room temperature – but be careful how you store them. Keep them out of direct sunlight, and I recommend putting the tub inside a larger box or open-top container – the mealworms will push their castings, known as ‘frass’, out of the air-holes in the sides of their tub and make a bit of a mess if you’re not careful.
Start by putting a few mealworms on a tray or dish in the garden and then go back inside. Once a robin takes these, it should return in the hope of finding more. After a couple of days of this, when the robin knows the food source is reliable, you can sit very still in a chair in the garden some distance from the food and let the robin get used to your presence. As the days go by, place the food closer and closer to your chair, eventually putting it onto a garden table near you, if you have one – always remaining still or moving very slowly. And so, day by day, your robin will gain confidence in being close to you until, hopefully before too long, it’ll be eating from your hand.
Children love the idea of a tiny robin sitting on their fingers and eating from their hand – all they need to do is be patient and remain still. This really is a lovely way to pass a little time in the garden on a warm spring or summer day.