Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Robin's Life Work

Note: This program first aired June 22, 2013.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching a pair of robins nesting this spring. For the past several years, they have taken to nesting on human made structures around an outbuilding at my house; on window ledges, on top of propped up ladders, on exposed beams. I’ve watched them in the past, but I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t really pay attention to them, due to a mix of caution and frank snobbery. Part of me didn’t want to disturb them, and part of me thought “oh, well, they are just robins. Robins are everywhere, they are so common, there’s nothing special about them.” This is a trap that naturalists everywhere fall into, we want to spot the rare bird, be the first to find the unusual flower, identify the large mammal tracks. So caught up are we with the excitement of the uncommon that we become blind to the more ordinary friends we see around us on a daily basis; the dandelion, the daisy, the sparrow, the robin.

This year I let go of my pretension. I was in a class, and one of our assignments was to watch a bird for an hour and record our observations. Because I am both an over achiever and an over scheduler, I needed to find an easy bird to observe, something close to home, something predictable, something like a robin nesting on a window ledge right out my front door. I decided that an hour was clearly not long enough, I would watch them during their entire nesting cycle, and document what I saw (that’s the over achieving part). What I learned is that every creature, every organism, every entity out there has something to teach us, if we are willing and open to learn it.

Several weeks ago, the robins began building their nest; The female builds the nest, with help from her mate. I didn’t know that from watching, a little back ground reading never hurt anyone. The pair struggled to construct the nest out of dry grass during high winds. It seemed futile to me. Then it rained, the ground became wet, mud formed. Robins construct a substantial part of their nests from mud, and these robins didn’t make any progress on their nest building until spring weather favored them with some building material. Suddenly, from what looked like a sloppy pile of mud on a window sill, a beautiful grass lined nest was formed. Next the female seemed to be testing out the nest, sitting in it some times leaving it other times. I realized she was preparing to lay eggs. One day I saw an egg in the nest, and worried that she had abandoned it, as she was not there every time I looked. Again, just as suddenly there were four eggs in the nest, and she was sitting consistently. Robins, like many birds will delay the incubation until all the eggs in her clutch are laid, so they all hatch at the same time. Her spotty attendance to the nest was what I was observing, by not sitting on the eggs she was keeping them cool so they wouldn’t start to develop.

The book said that the eggs would hatch in 12 to 14 days, so I marked the range of due dates on my calendar. The first due  day two eggs had hatched, the second day a third egg had hatched, and by the third day all four had hatched. That meant that the first two had a two day head start on the last hatchling, and I wondered how that would play out in nest dynamics. The book also said that they would fledge in 14 to 16 days, meaning they would grow from helpless pink featherless grubs to fully feathered birds in about two weeks. I couldn’t believe that, so I decided to photo document their growth, with a single picture each day. It turns out that a photo really is worth a thousand words. By day 12 the largest nestling had fledged. By day 13 the next one had. Today is day 14. I fully expect that by the end of today when I go out and look, the nest will be empty.

In watching these animals, who I am so grateful to for accommodating my curiosity, I was given a gift. I saw how fast those babies grew, and thought of all of my friends and their children, and my young niece and nephew. I watched the mother sit faithfully on the nest for two weeks, and then saw the father return to share feeding responsibilities with the mother once the eggs had hatched. I was aware of the parents’ alarm when I would approach the nest for my lightening fast once daily photo, observing how the young would immediately lower themselves in the nest in response to their parents’ calls. When darkness fell each night, I would imagine the mother robin, sitting on her nest in the dark, with only her self between her babies and the unknown and hungry night beyond. Raising those babies is truly a robin’s life work. What kind of person am I if I am not awed by that?

As we enter this period of summer’s bounty and ease, pick something, anything, anything you will see on a daily basis, don’t wait for the Blackburnian warbler or the rose pogonia. Watch it until it brings you to your knees. I promise you, your life will be richer for it.


The Birder’s Handbook Paul Ehrlich et al, 1988 Simon and Schuster, the Bible for concise  go to info about North American bird natural history.

Nice little website about robins, including opportunities for citizen science.