At just past 4 a.m., my gray friend starts whistling outside the bedroom window. Gracie hears him and raises her head, then looks at me. “Pavarotti’s singing for us. Isn’t it pretty?” I say drowsily. My cat, no connoisseur of music, yawns and stretches, then goes out to the screened porch off the bedroom to do her duty and protect our home against invasion by feathered ruffians. Undeterred by her stink-eye, the catbird sings on, giving us his entire repertoire of mimicry, from the alarmed cheeps of a robin to a faint but dead-on shrill of an osprey, which is probably meant to scare the cat, but doesn’t.
Within minutes of Pavarotti’s solo aria, the sky is brightening toward dawn and the entire opera company has gathered. I pick out individual voices in the spirited ensemble: cardinals, goldfinches, robins, chickadees, house finches, nuthatches, cedar waxwings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, wood thrushes–even a distant loon is voicing from the waterfront beyond my neighbor’s field. The morning chorus is such a lovely way to wake up that I don’t even mind the earliness of the hour.
The exuberant sound and color of mid-May through the Fourth of July is our pay-off for having endured the long winter and slow creep of spring. Every year I greet old friends–animal, plant, and bird–as they return from dormancy or from winter vacations in milder climes. There’s a reassuring pattern to their appearance which provides a much-needed balance to the onslaught of human stupidity and tragedy that assails me every time I turn on the television.
This year I’ve been lucky enough to have a front-row seat at the baby robin show. A couple of years ago I nailed a small wooden tray to the framing of my porch roof, hoping that a robin pair would choose it as a nesting place. It got a couple of looks last spring, but no takers. This year, however, I came home from grocery shopping in early May and found wisps of straw and long strands of dead grass on the stoop. Retreating, I made my way into the house through the back door, and when I peeked out the window in the front, sure enough, Mrs. Robin was energetically putting the finishing touches on her nest. I put the heavy bucket of birdseed in front of the door to remind myself not to go out that way, and settled down to fascinated study of robin motherhood.
She and the mister must have gotten right down to work, because soon she was sitting low in the nest, brooding. Because it was well above eye level I couldn’t see into the nest itself, which was a little frustrating, but I did know from reading that robins lay one egg a day, generally stopping at four. From then on for some 12-14 days, the female only leaves the nest for about five or ten minutes every hour, and even then, she hunts for her food very near at hand. The male also stays nearby to help guard the nest.
The babies hatch out in the order in which the eggs are laid. The first I knew of the blessed event was when I watched Mrs. Robin return to the nest and two little naked heads popped up, clamoring to be fed. The next day I saw three heads, and finally the fourth sibling made its appearance, too. Mama and Papa were both kept busy from then on, landing and taking off from the nest platform as regularly as jets from a major airport. According to Annenberg Learner.org, a baby robin may eat the equivalent of fourteen feet of earthworms in two weeks! The parent birds worked hard to defend the nest, too. During this time, the main predation threat, at least in my yard, comes from other birds. I love blue jays for their beauty, but they are terrible nest robbers, as are starlings. I was sitting here at the table where I am typing this just about a week ago when I became aware that the two robins on the porch were loudly cheeping alarm calls. When I looked out, there were three starlings in the apple tree just beyond the porch, and the adult robins were frantically trying to drive them away. I opened the front door, fully prepared to do battle on behalf of ‘my’ baby birds, but the starlings fled, while Mr. and Mrs. Robin only flitted to the lilac and the apple tree respectively and watched me. I apologized for disurbing them and went meekly back inside. Within a minute they were both back up at the nest, checking on the kids to be sure no damage had been done. (Later that day, I also had a stern word with a blue jay to the effect that he’d better mind his own business and leave the nest alone or there’d be no peanuts for him next winter. Somewhat to my amazement, this seemed to work.)
One day, before I was ready for it, the nest was empty. I don’t know when the young birds left home, but since robin fledglings cannot fly when they jump out of the nest, I assume they must have crash-landed on the porch floor safely enough to hop into the low branches of the lilac that grows just next to the porch, and from there made their way to someplace safe. It takes some ten to fifteen days after that for them to become accomplished flyers, during which time the adults continue to feed them and teach them to find their own food. I haven’t seen the spotted breasts of any juvenile robins around the place yet, but the parents were unconcerned at the time, so I don’t think the nest was robbed, and Mama Robin is already brooding her second clutch of eggs in the same nest, which she’d be unlikely to do if the location weren’t safe, so I look forward to seeing the four teenagers during the summer.
It’s a fine time for visits from old friends.