While watering the geranium in one of the hanging baskets on the deck recently, I noticed something unusual. A pair of robins had decided to raise their early spring family on an oak branch that hangs at exactly eye level just five feet away from the corner of my deck. When I first approached the avian homestead, mom was sitting on the nest and she looked as if she was having one of those "oh shit" moments, wondering if it was too late to look for another location, location, location.
After she flew away with much consternation visibly and audibly evident, two little beaks attached to pinkish semi-feathered blobs popped up like whack-a-robins and just sort of bobbed there for a while before disappearing back into the perfectly formed nest. I think there must have been at least one more egg in the nest that never did hatch, because she was sitting on birds that had already hatched in the middle of the hot, hot day. I guess I could have stood on a ladder and verified this, but I never did. I discovered upon research that most robins lay three or four eggs in each nest. I'm assuming that there's a dead sibling in this story somewhere. I'll let him or her rest in peace and never mention it again.
Later in the day, I checked back and found one of the parents feeding the two sightless charges while sitting on a branch just above the nest. When I approached to get a closer look, the parent flew away with some parting language that sounded a bit suggestive. The beaks disappeared again, but I figured that I could make them appear by tapping on the branch. So that's what I did, with a stick I use to stir charcoal in the grill. Sure enough, there they were in a chirpy Pavlovian display.
Many bird books indicate that robins build their first nest in a conifer, like a pine or spruce, and their second and third nests in leafy trees such as my oak. It seems as if the female builds the nest and incubates the eggs, but mom and dad share time in both the search for those nesting materials as well as the grub to feed the babes.
Just like your humble correspondent, robins are monogamous for the breeding season. They often mate with other individuals in following years, and I would like to think that would have been true for me as well. Perhaps with a young Oriental girl. Unfortunately, there was only one breeding season for moi.
It just takes a few days to make the nest, which seems unlikely since it's such a work of architectural art. It seems to be perfectly round and as stable as a Jim Walter mobile home. The female chooses the site and builds the nest while dad, as usual, is relegated to hauling stuff around. It takes about two weeks for the eggs to hatch during which time mom sits on the nest for 40-minute periods. Then she stands up and turns the eggs and goes off to get some grub for herself. During this time, dad stands guard and even ventures to sit on the nest himself for short periods of time. I wonder how that makes him feel? Does he feel proud and productive, or just like some walk-on resigned to chewing scenery in the background while the woman does all the real work?
Since crows can be quite rude and take either the eggs or the baby robins themselves to feed to their own obviously dinosaur-related spawn, this can present a problem for the robins. It seems that crows generally stay away from buildings, so robins like to build nests close to structures. I suppose that's how I lucked out in having this Discovery Channel experience just out my bedroom doors.
A couple of days later, I noticed that the two nestlings had opened up their eyes. Thus, when I tried the tapping on the branch trick to get them to show themselves, they were much quicker to notice the ruse and dip back down into their small apartment. The good news was that mom and dad were getting used to me watching, and would even go ahead and bring the bacon home even if I was right there at arm's length. I noticed that the choice of meal had changed as well. At first, it looked as if the babes were just getting regurgitated fodder, but now they were getting chunks of worm or grub.
One of the amazing things was how the feeder could divide meals up while holding the dinner in its mouth, all the while chirping danger to the other partner about the fact that I was right there watching.
I guess it's the same with most bird parents, but the robins spent every waking hour finding and feeding food to these two needy brats. In fact, I learn that robins feed their young 35 to 40 times a day. I'm sure you were wondering the same thing. Well, the nest is kept clean by the parents either carrying away the refuse or eating the chicks' fecal sacs. I hope it tastes better than the diapers smelled which I used to have to change in our little nest.
Just a little over a week after I discovered them, the babies were resting their heads on the edge of the nest when I went to check on them. One of them had its beak up even while asleep. I suppose it was dreaming of food.
Wouldn't you love to be able to crawl inside an animal's dream sometime? When my dog is lying there with her legs moving and making these high-pitched sounds, I wonder if she is really seeing a dangerous known item in the dream, or is it some horror much, much more ephemeral? Something that would drive a human to the insane asylum if you saw but just ten seconds of it? I'd take that chance if offered. Just to know. Of course, if I had the capability and could show you a five-minute home movie of some of my dreams, it might put you in the loony bin just the same. Who's to know these things?
The next day we had a violent thunderstorm. I had to get the umbrella and go out the see how this was being addressed. And this might have been the most compelling thing I saw the entire time this little drama played out. One of the parents was sitting on the nest, head down with wings outspread. The parent's tail was raised so that water gathered on its back instead of the nest. It had the effect of a live tarpaulin and I think I could feel the love through the heavy raindrops.
I started thinking of what was going to happen when these little ones tried to fly. And I started thinking of how pissed off I was going to be if the evil cat that lives in my house wound up with one of them in her mouth, as she did last year with the cardinal. If I found one of the little ones on the ground, what would I do? Could I pick it up and put it back? In fact, had that happened it would have been fine. That old myth about birds smelling the scent of a human and leaving the kids to die as a result is not true. Most birds don't have much of a sense of smell and wouldn't care. The main thing is putting the babes back in the same nest. It's all location, location, location. It's the same with trying to move the nest to help out if you think it's in danger of some sort. Moving the nest makes it appear like a different nest. As the mother builds, she is memorizing all the features around the nest. When those features are gone, she may simply not even recognize her nest anymore.
I noticed at around day twelve that some orange and red had appeared on the kids. I guess this is the puberty stage.
And, today, the babies have flown the coop. Approximately two weeks to hatch and just about the same time to learn how to leave home. I know that they face two or three days of constant danger since they can't fly all that well. Apparently, they will try to make for low vegetation (of which I have plenty in this wooded back yard that goes on forever) and will rely on their little adolescent plumage to conceal them from predators like the evil cat that lives with the women in my house. Cats are the number one danger for birds such as this. Some folks calculate that cats take 40 times more robins than any of the more natural predators, such as owls, sparrowhawks, kestrels, stoats and rats. That doesn't surprise me at all.
Once they get out of the danger stage, a robin can live to be up to 14 years old. About the same as my dog. Or this evil cat. But most folks who study this stuff say the entire population of robins turns over about every six years and about half of the robins alive in any one year will make it to the next.
Where do they go in the winter? If you're in the deeper South like me, they probably go to roost in flocks out in the woods somewhere. Males actually do this year round when they're not helping out with the young, but females join them in the winter. There are usually 20 to 200 birds in a roost, but they can get as large as 250,000. I've never seen this with robins, but I have seen so many blackbirds in the sky at one time that it seemed as the sun would be overcome.
I try to generate concern for the fledglings. Where are they now? Do they really have trouble flying back up to the nest, but somehow find a way and then remain there for several days while they learn the ropes in this huge, huge world?
Why don't I care more than I do, after all this eavesdropping?
My daughter and I walked out of the house the other day and there in the driveway was a turtle which, I think, is the same turtle that shows up every spring. We don't see this reptile at any point during the fall or winter, but somehow every summer there he or she is. Last year, we even found a couple of small turtles out in the back yard. You know; the size that they sell at the pet store and paint smiley faces on their shells before the kids take them home and torture them with forced-pet sweatbox captivity. So I'm attached to this turtle in some sort of spiritual way and have even stopped my car at least twice to put him or her out of the road so that s/he doesn't get run over. And yet . . .
A few days later, I was coming home with the dog on our regular walk and a phalanx of neighborhood kids came running out of the woods with a box and said, "Hey, mister, you wanna buy a turtle . . . for free?" One of his smudged compatriots chimed in, "No, for a DOLLAR?" I held a deep suspicion that it was my driveway turtle in that box. But I didn't ask to see, and I didn't even offer them "nothing" for it, just so I could bring it home and set it free.
Have I become so Jack Kevorkian-like in my old age that it just doesn't matter any more? Is it the fault of the cat who lives in my house and kills everything it sees? Is it because my daughter is now twenty years old and moving into her own apartment, likely never to return to our little nest again?
Regardless, good luck little robins. I hope to see you next year as full-grown birds eating the hell out of worms in my yard and having babies of your own. You made me happy for a couple of weeks.