In your yard and neighborhood, wherever you live, high drama is under way right outside your window. Drama that most people don't see and seldom experience. It's wild and scary, involving creatures engaged in life-and-death struggles. Surviving storms and cold. Trying to keep from being killed or injured. Mating. Working to raise their family. Defending their home. It is a world of excitement, energy, and emotion. It is the world of wild creatures. And danger.
This book is about the uncommon life of one of the most common birds, the American Robin, a beloved symbol of spring. A bird that people interact with regularly without experiencing, wondering, or even thinking about the spine-tingling, nerve-wracking, adrenaline-flowing excitement that is so much a part of the life of every wild thing. Once you experience the world through a robin's eyes, I hope you'll look at every wild thing with new appreciation and with respect for what it accomplishes by living.
If you could have looked in on the nest it would have appeared to be peaceful and quiet. Four light blue eggs were resting on a bed of soft, fine grasses and dog hair. The walls of the nest, formed from mud with grass, string, and a couple of bits of newspaper, were more than twice the height of the eggs. A kind of backyard adobe, they shielded the eggs from chilling wind and rain somewhat, though that was really the mother's job.
Mother was a female American Robin. When it rained, her job was to protect the eggs she had been incubating with her body. And she knew exactly what do, for this was her third season.
But she was off the nest now, as she often was at times throughout the day. She was busy feeding in the immense spread of lawn that rested below and to the west of the large oak tree in which the nest was located. And though the nest on which she had been sitting for the past two weeks looked peaceful enough to other birds that happened upon it in the middle of the lower branches of that oak tree, it was in fact the site of an exhausting struggle.
For a couple of days the birds inside the eggs had been preparing for it. As their nervous systems developed, as they became aware, if that is the word that describes development of their hearing, the only sense they could use as long as they were wrapped in the confines of a shell, they began to know their mother. They heard her whisper to them—a series of soft robin sounds. And they heard their father, too, and learned to recognize his sounds, both the soft clucks he exchanged with their mother when he would take over the nest-guarding duties and his songs. And what songs they were—loud from a distance, proclaiming his mastery over the half acre of suburban lawn, trees, shrubs, and brush that constituted his territory. Or the soft whisper song he made while singing in the tree near the nest. The whisper song was so soft that they could scarcely hear it, though they were within a few feet of their father.
But it was their mother, primarily, who had been signaling to them. And her sounds, combined with their development, led to the battle now taking place.
The four featherless, lizard-like, ugly baby robins were engaged in their first struggle for life. It was exhausting work. But slowly, regularly, each doubled-up naked baby would jerk its head, using the sharp tip on its infant beak to puncture and tear the shell that had protected but now constrained it. Like a hundred thousand generations of robins before them, they were cutting the shells with a circle right in the middle—the same place where many people crack a chicken egg when they break it open to cook it. But these baby robins were a lot neater, and a lot slower.
He was the first of the four to punch through the confinement of the egg. Of course, he didn't have a name. He never would. But he did have an identity, a strong sense of "self" that would serve him well when he needed it. For now, it is sufficient to know that he was first.
He was actually the second egg to be laid, though no bird or thing would ever know that. The fact that he was first out was testimony not to the time of his conception but to the strength he inherited. Here, as with every brood of young things, one was the strongest and one was the weakest, and he was the strongest. Thus he would be first in many things before these ugly, naked, and weak baby birds that appeared to be little more than skin-covered digestive tracts developed into graceful maturity.
Light came through his first tiny hole while his mother was off the nest, and the change he sensed but could not see made him work harder, twisting, lifting, and pushing his head to slowly, steadily enlarge the cut.
Soon he felt movement—he was always aware of movement—and sensed the darkness as his mother, making her soft sounds, settled briefly over the eggs, surrounding them with her feathers and exposing a warm, heat-producing patch of skin to the eggs. Ordinarily she would have turned them as she settled back on the nest, ensuring that they were evenly exposed to the heat of her body. But from the sounds within the eggs, she knew, both instinctively and from her past experience, that the activity going on there was important and demanded that they not be moved. It wasn't that the baby birds were warm-blooded creatures. They weren't; they relied on her heat for their body temperature, as they would for a few days yet until their own heat-producing and regulatory systems developed more. But turning the eggs now might confuse their efforts to get out. In effect, it was a birth in which the babies went through the labor.
She stood up on the rim of the nest frequently to observe the progress being made beneath her. And nine times during the day the father robin came to watch too, as she left to hunt, drink water from the birdbath on the other side of the yard, and bathe.
Finally, at four o'clock in the afternoon, he was out of the egg. His squirming and cutting had separated the shell into two pieces, and he could sense the brightness of this tremendous expansion of his world. As soon as he was free of the shell, his mother picked up half of it and flew across the street that was next to the oak, intending to drop it in a garden that was actually outside of the territory she shared with her mate.
The robin who "owned" that territory quickly flew in to intercept and fight her intrusion, but she simply dropped the shell, wheeled in a slow turn, and flew back to her oak tree, alighting first on a nearby branch to look for intruders in her territory before returning to the nest.
She was an alert, observant parent, and her experience had taught her to be on the lookout. There were many creatures that would delight in eating her, and even more that would rob her nest of its eggs or its young. Attempts had been made before. Trouble could happen again at any time.
Such odds would make a human being neurotic, but they simply made the robins alert. Those who weren't alert rarely lived long enough to produce any offspring.
Seeing nothing unusual, she hopped down three branches and then glided across the interior of the tree to her nest.
Landing on the branch where the nest was located created a movement that the baby robin immediately sensed. The movement made him want to lift his head and open his mouth, but he was too fatigued from his struggle to do it, and he dozed off instead.
Meanwhile, his mother flew with the other half of his eggshell to a spot on the lawn near the birdbath. For the rest of the afternoon and early evening, she spent her time brooding her emerging young to keep them warm and dropping their now useless eggshells in distant and obscure spots around the neighborhood.
It would be very hard for a predator to find the nest by the location of the eggshells.
By nightfall, Mr. and Mrs. Robin had a family.
The hard work was just beginning.
He couldn't see, but he learned the difference between his first days and nights in many ways. Of course, he could sense light and dark, but that didn't always have much to do with night and day. That was because his mother spent much of the first few days of his life brooding him, his brother, and their two sisters.
So the days were simply periods of light interspersed with periods of darkness and warmth. And he came to approve of the dark periods, for his mother's warmth and the nearness of her somehow made him feel good and safe.
He also learned to know when the nights were coming by his father's song. His father, whom he knew only as a voice and a visitor with food, would always salute the coming evening with singing and battle.
On a typical night he would hear his father sing first somewhere to the east of the nest. A snatch of song there, and he would move twenty yards north, where he would sing again. He would hear his father mark with song the approximate boundaries of his territory.
Twilight did not bring the long proclamations of the morning song, but rather bits and pieces of song that seemed each night to be marked by at least one territorial battle.
One night's fight might be caused by his father's trespassing on the territory of the robin to the north, just across the street from the oak tree containing the nest. It was an intentional trespass, part of a never-ending attempt to increase territory and define boundaries. On another night it might be a strange robin—who knows where it came from—landing right in the middle of his father's territory. Such fights were much shorter than the boundary squabbles with neighbors because this was a bird that had deserted his own territory, perhaps because of the death of a mate, and was in search of new grounds.
After these skirmishes started, his mother would usually leave the nest to join in the chase or defense and he would feel the damp cooling of late twilight. If the weather was pleasant she would be gone for quite some time, but eventually she would return to the nest. This last return, however, was different from any other of the day. That was because she would not bring anything to feed the infant birds when she returned. Instead, she would give them a quiet, scolding admonition and then she would settle down over them to protect them from the night and its dangers.
Most nights were totally uneventful for them. They would sleep comfortably warm, not knowing if she was keeping out the rain or just keeping the coldness of night from chilling their frail, featherless bodies. Without feathers as they were, even the chill of night could be dangerous. A cold rain would surely be more than their undeveloped, weak systems could handle.
But the night had other dangers too. In the early evening near the end of their first week, the safety of the brood was challenged. Even they became aware of it because their mother varied from her usual routine. Normally she made noise and stirred only at dawn. But that night the brood sensed danger as she tensed and rose slightly not long after she had settled down on the nest. They heard her hiss, kind of like a lizard or snake, and they heard her bill snap and click—new sounds to them, sounds that evoked considerable fear. But that was all they knew of the danger they were exposed to.
What they did not know was that a flying squirrel had leaped and glided from the elm tree across the street to the oak where their nest was. It landed on the tip of a branch about halfway down the oak and slowly worked its way up the branch, nipping at the green shoots of the oak tree and occasionally, luckily, capturing a delicious green caterpillar, one of hundreds that were dining on the oak's tender new shoots and growths that would become acorns in late summer.
As the squirrel got to the trunk of the oak, its claws made a noise that woke the mother robin. She blinked and tried to see the intruder. The flying squirrel's sharp black eyes caught the movement of her blinks, and it went to investigate. The squirrel was a female, heavy with developing young, and her body demanded protein. She had learned that she often found what she craved in birds' nests in the form of eggs at any stage of development, and even in the bodies of infant birds. She hadn't eaten an egg since the previous year when she surprised a Red-eyed Vireo off her nest in the topmost branches of a large elm tree. When the vireo flew, the squirrel quickly cut through two of the three freshly laid speckled eggs, eagerly sucking and lapping the juices into her mouth, looking very much like a wide-eyed child drinking a malt out of a large cup.
She had taken the third vireo egg with her back to her nest in an old Downy Woodpecker hole. And before morning she ate that too, and nibbled and swallowed part of the shell.
It seemed that fortune was going to smile on her again. She approached the robin hesitantly, uncertain as to whether she could frighten such a large bird off the nest.
Because the mother robin was awake, the squirrel had already lost one advantage, the opportunity to startle the bird into flight. As she approached the nest, crawling rapidly but cautiously out on the nearly horizontal branch, she became apprehensive. The robin was frightened. The squirrel was quick, creeping with jerky motions that were hard to see in the dark. But the robin could see it and she identified the intruder as a squirrel. She decided that she could defeat it. She rose off the nest slightly, her fear and anger causing her skin muscles to contract, raising the feathers of her body and making her appear quite a bit larger than she actually was.
But the squirrel kept coming, moving more slowly now, as it inched along the branch. Its tail was flicking, and it seemed poised and ready to fight.
The robin snapped her beak rapidly, clicking, sounding a warning to her enemy that she was prepared to defend her nest. Then she hissed and lowered her head for battle, thrusting her sharp beak at the squirrel.
It was too much of a risk. The squirrel quickly retreated along the branch and climbed to the top of the tree, where it darted out toward the tip of one of the small branches. Then it leaped and made a gliding fall back across the street to the trunk of the elm from which it had come. The flying squirrel scampered to a branch near the top of the elm and soared to a catalpa tree that edged the mixed stand of oaks and maples that was her home. In a little over a minute, the time it took the squirrel to move the fifty yards into the middle of the trees, she had almost forgotten about her near battle and had resumed her helter-skelter search for food and protein.
Mother robin, meanwhile, also forgot about the episode and dropped off to sleep. She did learn, though, and would never forget, that she could bluff a flying squirrel in a face-off at her nest. It was the kind of lesson that could one day mean survival for her young or her species. Such are the things that wild creatures learn.
Mornings erupted with a frenzy of sensory bombardment for the baby birds. Both within their bodies and from the outside world, drives and sounds dominated their environment. It was a time of great discomfort because of their hunger.
For one thing, they heard their father make a couple of brisk calls (announcing that he was awake) from his roost in the spruce tree near the small white house on the south edge of his territory. Every morning, just after he awoke, in the earliest faint light, he would make the short flight from the spruce to the television aerial on top of the house. There he would greet the dawn with his song.
The young robins' instincts told them that this was the language of their kind and they would never forget it. But robin songs are very individualistic. Like many species of birds, each robin adapts his natural song to his identity, nurturing the sounds from his repertoire that he likes, and repeating and changing them over and over. These favorite sounds are worked continuously into his songs, giving each robin a unique stamp of identity and individuality. The baby robin, his brother, and their sisters learned their father's song, as well as every sound that was in his language. By sound alone they could distinguish their father from every other robin singing the dawn song. And at dawn during this time of the year, every other male robin within hearing was singing.
Virtually every dawn was the same, the time of song initiation changing only if it was cloudy. Then singing started about fifteen minutes later and did not last quite so long, though on some cloudy and humid days the male birds would sing nearly all day long.
From day to day, however, there was little variation in the morning routine. Just as it began to get light, as the sky to the east showed the faintest soft presence of first light from the sun, their father would fly to the antenna, where he would scold. Then he'd fly to the telephone wires running parallel to the street beside the oak tree.
His first sounds of the day were not song but a kind of statement to his mate and offspring that he was awake—that he had survived another night.
With that, their mother would repeat the call and abruptly leave the nest. She was hungry (and her babies were absolutely craving food, so great was the demand of their rapidly growing bodies for protein and fluid). But she would tend to her needs first, for a weak mother is a poor hunter.
It was still too dark for many birds to be about, but the mother robins, descendants of woodland-dwelling thrushes, with eyes well adapted for excellent vision in poor light, were all on the grass hunting. Her mate, meanwhile, had now flown the ten yards from the wire back to the antenna, from which he could command a clear view of his territory and the sky.
There he would sing, a member of a mass chorus of robins, cardinals, and other early singers running the length of the meridian that marked the sunrise. Every male robin along that borderline between night and day would sing his song and fly from his first perch to the other perches that marked his territory, where he repeated his song. A proclamation of time and property. A statement of life and ownership, no matter how transient. A salute to freedom and living but also a tribute to the rules that governed the lives of all robins—indeed, all life.
To the father robin, it was his personal statement that mattered. To his babies, and his mate, this was the statement that made them feel secure.
As the robins started their day they heard the sharp "tisk-tisk" calls of a pair of Northern Cardinals nesting in a juniper about thirty yards away. Always awake at about the same time as the robins, the cardinals made a herky-jerky flight through the shrubbery beds to the bird feeder just outside the window of the house beneath the television aerial. There they would start the day with a handout of sunflower and safflower seeds provided for any guest, from pesky, quarrelsome House Sparrows to the bright cardinals and the handsome, dignified Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.
Shortly after the cardinals departed, Gray Catbirds would begin their peculiar calls, Brown Thrashers would sing their marvelous mimicry, and slowly the birds of more open areas would begin their day.
Many would awake with the outcry of the first robins. But they would sit drowsily, fluffed up and warm, until the sun rose higher, offering them more protection from the predators of the night as well as the visibility to see their prey.
After the chorus, father robin would join mother robin in searching the dewy grass for his breakfast. Hunters of opportunity, the robins took what was available—always looking for prized angleworms and night crawlers, especially in the morning, but taking whatever they could get—beetles, sow bugs, moths, katydids, caterpillars, worms, what have you.
After they had filled their stomachs so that the fronts of their breasts were plump and protruding, satiating their appetite, they began to hunt for their young.
What a day's work that would be! In the first part of the first week of the brood it wasn't too bad. The adults could quickly satisfy the babies. The young robins told their parents when they had had enough to eat. Not in words, of course, but by an easily recognized mechanism: a baby robin with a full stomach won't open its mouth, which prevents the dominant baby from getting all the food. This mechanism increased the likelihood that even the weakest of the four would get enough nourishment during normal weather to grow to adulthood.
So at first the small robins did not require much food. That gave the adults plenty of time to rest, and the father would take advantage of the time to splash in the birdbath at least twice a day and to sing, loaf, and preen his feathers.
But as the brood grew, the parents spent less time on themselves and more time trying to satisfy the growing appetites of the four gaping mouths.
To the young male, in the nest with his brother and sisters, it was a simple time. He would sleep with his head down, enjoying what warmth was available from the sun and the naked bodies of his brother and sisters. Then, when one of the parents landed on the nest or on the branch near the nest, the force on the moving branch would wake all four young. If he wasn't full, he would stretch his ugly naked head just as high as he could and if he was lucky, his mother or father—they both hunted equally hard—would cram a beakful of sometimes squirming things deep into his throat. (If they had stuck a rubber band in there instead of an earthworm he would never have known the difference until it obstructed his digestive tract.)
If he was full, he wouldn't put his head up so high, and he wouldn't open his mouth. At this time of year, late May, hunting was good, and his parents kept the brood well fed and frequently full throughout the first week of their life. The parents were busy, too, flying to distant areas of their territory with fecal sacs, the waste that the birds expelled. Like most perching birds, the robins were fastidious nest keepers and never allowed waste from the young birds to remain in the nest or on the ground below the nest. The young birds grew rapidly, and feathers began to emerge from their wings, tails, and over their entire bodies. And then, one morning nearly a week after the young robin had emerged from the shell, something happened to him. His eyes opened and he could see!