3 - THE NEW FAMILY

When the babies began to hatch, Mr. Robin did appear. The poor dear had stuck around all the time, ready and willing to assume his share of the responsibilities, apparently just awaiting approval from the Missus. One evening we observed them as they both stood on the edge of the nest surveying their new off-spring, an intertwined indistinguishable moving mass of naked, reddish, scrawny, blind nestlings. Not a pretty sight to human eyes, but probably a most beautiful one to the robin couple.

Soon the parents had an assembly-line feeding program going so that we decided not to spy on the babies anymore for fear that one of the parents would collide with our periscope. It was amusing to see one stuffing the frenetic gaping mouths while the other was in a "holding pattern" waiting for clearance to land. Birds masticate food for the newborn, and it is thought that this process provides necessary enzymes for their development. As the babies grew older, their meals of insect puree became more solid: whole grubs, worms, beetles, and dragonflies, long legs and all.

Dozens of bird families in our ravine, maybe hundreds, were going through the same routines. Each day began at four in the morning, songs and chatter became more and more voluminous as the season progressed and little voices became stronger. Sometimes it was almost deafening — but wonderful! Twenty or thirty minutes later all was hushed again until 5:30 or 6:00, a time which seemed to suit Mrs. Robin better. She did not rise with the others* but stayed quiet and in bed as long as she was able. Heaven knows she needed the rest because from then until dark her responsibilities never ceased — it was one load of groceries after another. She never had a chance to sit with her feet propped up, much less to think of the empty-nest syndrome. Perhaps when she was pulling her tenth worm of the day, she prayed, "Please, let the sun set early tonight." When night did come, she carefully positioned her feet in the nest, settled down, and dutifully spread out her feathers to cover her babies and the opening of the nest while Papa slept on the edge or on a nearby tree limb.

*Generally it is the males only who sing, proclaiming their territorial rights while the mother birds tend their young.[4]

Was this the same couple we'd seen in the area for several years? Was this the same cock who kept attacking our living room windows for two years in a row? That particular robin had used the same strategy over and over as he approached our windows: first, he flew to a branch on a cedar tree, then to a higher one on the same tree, and then down onto a springy fir limb just a foot away from the window. As the branch swayed up and down with his weight, he bobbed his head up and down in the opposite direction to keep it exactly level, all the while keeping a steady eye on something inside. It was as if his bouncing body were suspended from his head with rubber bands. Then, just at the right moment, he hurled himself at the window and clawed it vigorously, claws raking the glass as he lost altitude. When his feet hit the sill, he sprang backward, catapulting into flight.

The household, thinking that was the end of the episode, went back to its quiet routine. Not fifteen minutes elapsed when the peace was again broken by another thud and more scre-e-eching on glass. Surely, by now he should realize the barrier was impenetrable — but soon he was back, lunging at the window with full vigor. He came with such force that he lost small feathers and body fluids which blended with his dusty imprints into wavy paths from his claws and made an awful mess.
Why did the robin behave in this manner? Was there something in the room that caused his aggression? There were no birds or animals, live or otherwise, in the room — perhaps he didn't like the orange sofa — or perhaps he thought it was his dear mum reincarnated. Not only did his persistence shatter our nerves but we thought he might injure himself. We finally realized we had to discourage his bizarre behavior, and feeling like monsters (guilt-ridden about our behavior) we pretended to counter-attack from inside. It worked.

It wasn't until later we learned that robins are territorial and fearlessly fight for their spaces, a back yard for example. The male robin drives away intruders, especially other robins, by puffing up his breast, displaying it threateningly. The "enemy," unsure of himself on foreign ground, scares off. If he does not leave, Cock Robin takes stronger measures and fights — even an "intruder's" reflection in a picture window!

Lack's information on color-ringing of birds showed that ". . . all, or almost all, of those male robins which have once established territories are thereafter non-migratory."[5] (The oldest robin recorded up to that time was eleven years old.)

Our babies were becoming larger, stronger, less transparent, and more vocal each day. They began bobbing and stretching their necks on the third day. Their chattery heads shot up to unbelievable lengths at the slightest sounds and out of their cavernous orange mouths came a chorus of speeded-up chirps, each pleading a hardship case for its own stomach. They fidgeted and shoved and shuffled constantly during their waking hours. In just a week's time the nest seemed too small. How could they possibly have managed with even one other nestling? Obviously Mrs. Robin had done some planning.

If all the fates are with them, baby robins remain stuffed in the nest for about twelve days. Then they either fly or fall out. The parents continue to feed them, following them from pillar to post with beaks loaded with food. Lack says that some fledglings begin picking up food about the eighth day out of the nest (twenty days after hatching), but frequently the parents continue to feed them until the forty-first day. This is why it is not uncommon to see a parent stuffing food into a baby who appears to be twice the size of sparse Mom or Pop.

 

[4] - Joan Carson, Ornithologist, telephone conversation, Poulsbo, Washington, October 30, 1986.

[5] - David Lack, The Life of the Robin (London: H.F.& G. Witherby Ltd., 1944), 110.

 

TO CHAPTER 4