MOVE-IN DAY

Day Nine arrived and, as was our usual practice upon waking, we checked the nest. She was in it! Apparently she had made another inspection, found it to her liking, and had moved in; but she seemed restless, as if uncertain about something. Too much moss on the bottom? Not enough on the sides? She stood up. She crouched down. She stood up again. Back down. Then she shifted counter-clockwise about 45˚ degrees, but that didn't seem to suit her either. She stood up for the third time and then turned in the other direction. Soon she leaned close to one edge, then farther, until her feathered breast hung over the side.

She was all puffed out. In fact, her whole body appeared enlarged and her head seemed tiny in comparison, pulled close to her "shoulders," turtle-like. Moments later she began breathing hard; her chest was heaving and her eyes were somewhat glazed, staring, other-worldly. She was preoccupied and for a brief interval, unconcerned with the world in general.

"She must be laying an egg!" Sam said in excited but hushed tones.

We had never witnessed such an event before and because we weren't up on bird lore, we didn't know for sure what we were observing; but we knew it was some sort of phenomenon. Whatever it was, it was a palpitating, exhausting effort for Mrs. Robin. She was either laying an egg or having a stroke. We waited. In a minute or two she appeared more alert, stood up, turned around, and looked at the bottom of the nest. She probed at something at her feet and then lowered herself into the nest slowly, gently, until only her head and tail were visible.

We still couldn't fully appreciate the drama which had just occurred before our eyes. Was there an egg or not? We had seen birds and bird nests all of our lives, but they were obscure, out of reach, high above our heads in the tree tops or rafters. Each year barn swallows built and rebuilt their nests on the roof beams inside our carport. Tell-tale signs on our cars announced their arrival in the spring, and for the duration we parked in the driveway; then after some weeks when we and our cat were no longer being dive-bombed, we knew the birds were gone, and that was that for another year. These were passive experiences. We never timed or observed them more fully; we were certainly never privileged to a grandstand seat such as we had now. It had all been quite impersonal.

Mrs. Robin's situation was different. Since the nest was at our eye level, not four feet away, we were aware of all her comings and goings. We could not have ignored her if we tried.

Now, we kept an especially close watch. One of us kept a constant vigil, reporting every movement in muted tones to the other. After an hour, when she finally left the nest, we were ready to investigate. Sam contrived a periscope by taping my compact mirror to the end of a broom handle. He opened the window and cautiously eased the contraption toward the nest — both of us nervous about Mrs. Robin's possible sudden return. Finally the mirror was positioned over the nest — Lo and behold, one beautiful blue egg! We stared at the reflection of the miracle and glowed; we had witnessed something wonderful. No longer was this an ordinary nest, nor was she just any old robin. We became possessive. She was OUR robin and soon there would be babies to enjoy. We became protective: How were she and the babies to remain safe from nest robbers and other mishaps?

While we were envisioning doing battle with the tough neighborhood cats, robber crows, blue jays, and other enemies, Mrs. Robin returned. For the rest of the day her behavior remained normal. She was in and out of the nest on a schedule of sorts: in for 30 to 40 minutes, off and away for 15 to 30 minutes. Once she was gone for a full 45 minutes and we began accusing her of negligence. We assumed that if she allowed the egg to become cold, it wouldn't hatch. How dare she be so careless with our baby.

At 11:30 the following morning she began to puff out again and went through the same ordeal as before. And so did we. Then, when she left, we found a second egg, just as beautiful as the first. She lay two more eggs through the following two days, stopping at a clutch of four.

Incubation brought stronger commitment to the nest. She allowed herself the rarest absences for food, sitting on the unsheltered nest in blazing sun with beak open or toughing it out in cold rain. One day a mild spring shower turned into a torrential driving rain, then to hailstones. I made numerous nervous trips to the window to see how she was faring. She was crouched low to provide a drier, warmer cover for the eggs; only her head and tail were visible, but the unusual posture of the head, one which I'd never seen before, made me race to find Sam.

"Come! Come quickly," I shouted as I ran through the house. Sam dropped what he was doing and came running as fast as he could. I whirled around two steps ahead, half-yelling, half-gasping as I ran, "You'll see a sight that you've never seen before and probably never will again!" His mind raced, not knowing what to expect. As we crunched through the doorway, I vigorously waved my arm toward the window. He could see poor Mrs. Robin on her nest drenched with rain, pummeled by hail. Upsetting as it was, the situation of itself did not seem to be the problem I had built it up to be. However, it was harrowing to witness the wretched bird being bashed about under our very eyes. We stood glued to the window, helpless, staring at her. As we watched we both began to realize that it was truly a phenomenon. She had turned her beak skyward almost 90° degrees, thus offering less surface for the stones to hit; but the marvel was that she had spread tiny hair-like feathers, which grew on the upper base of her beak, into an arc and fanned them out over her nostrils and eyes (like a car windshield visor but upside down). Mother Nature had thought of everything — not only a program for living, but instincts for survival with back-up systems.

Mrs. Robin kept her eyes partially open, protected by the "fan," until it began to hail again. Then, seeming to grit her teeth, she pointed her beak even higher and closed her eyes completely. The hail pelted her relentlessly until she was covered, a mountain of stones on her back and a white ring around her nest. It looked as if she were taking a bubble bath, but without the pleasure of it.

We hoped for a halt in the storm, worrying about such things as Mrs. Robin over-heating under the blanket of ice or the ice melting sufficiently to congeal so that she wouldn't be able to free herself. But these were ridiculous worries — finally, the hail storm abated, Mrs. Robin slowly rose, breaking the mound of white pebbles, stood up, shook herself off, repositioned her stubborn little body on the nest, and continued her job.

How long would it take the eggs to hatch? None of our bird books gave us information about the lives and habits of birds; they were mostly concerned with identification and migration. Months later we found David Lack's The Life of the Robin, John Terres' Songbirds in Your Garden, and Austin Rand's Ornithology: An Introduction, and my mother gave us That Quail, Robert by Margaret Stanger. Lack says the incubation period is from thirteen to fifteen days, and generally only the hen incubates. We also learned that the eggs are soft-shelled when laid and gradually harden with exposure to air. Birds turn or roll their eggs to maintain an even temperature within them to develop the embryos and to keep them from settling and sticking to the shell; but "the hen does not start incubation until the clutch is complete." [1]

Geraldine Flanagan and Sean Morris, in their discussion of blue titmice, say that hens who lay ten or twelve eggs, one per day, have a method of delaying development until all the eggs have been laid, by deserting them daily instead of keeping them warm. According to the authors ". . . the inborn 'delay switch' against immediate incubation prevents the first-laid from becoming too advanced over the others. Otherwise, the first two or three hatched would have such an advantage in size and abilities that this would have ruined the chances of survival for the later younger ones." [2] The size of the species determines the size of the nest and the number of eggs to be laid, which then generally determines when incubation is to begin.

In our case, Mrs. Robin seemed to start incubation right away. Her babies hatched on subsequent days so that the first one was actually four days older than the youngest sibling, explaining the smaller size and weakness of the last compared to the others. It became obvious that even one day makes a whopping difference in the life of a baby bird. Why hadn't Mrs. Robin waited until the fourth egg was laid? Was she new at the game, anxious to start her family, anticipating a trip in July, or did she simply want the whole business done and over with?

Studies on robins show that they lay three to five eggs, although English robins, which are smaller in size, have been known to lay ten. How did those mothers ever manage? Square footage in the nest is at such a premium and feeding a mob like that must be an awesome task, especially if the father is as lazy as our Mr. Robin — who hadn't even offered to help with the nest. (We really were disgusted with him and wondered if he was going to put in an appearance after the babies hatched. We chastised him thoroughly.)

Further information from Lack made us retract our words when we read ". . . in most song-birds both sexes build the nest but in the robin only the hen builds. Sometimes she chases the cock away (who occasionally wants to help)." [3]

[1] - David Lack, The Life of the Robin (London: H.F.& G. Witherby Ltd., 1944), p.87.

[2] - Geraldine Lux Flanagan and Sean Morris, Window into a Nest (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975), p. 56.

[3] - Lack, 80.

TO CHAPTER 3