519 East Sheridan Street, PO Box 609 • Eagle River, Wisconsin 54521 • (715) 479-6456
Guest blogger Jenn Jontry, Master Naturalist, reflects on a common red-bellied bird...
Trees For Tomorrow hosted a Wisconsin Master Naturalists training event this past summer that I attended. One session of our training included an interpretive hike at Fallison Lake State Park with local author and interpreter John Bates, who is more than a little knowledgeable about birds, among other things. During that hike, a discussion took place in which John commented that the robin tends to be a bird we overlook because it is so common, favoring instead the showier birds like pileated woodpeckers and bright yellow finches, and the golden-throated singers like hermit thrushes and song sparrows. Of course John's observation was undeniable, but it got me thinking about robins, and a time when I only rarely saw them – living in southeast Texas for many years, the pumpkin-breasted birds might, at best, fly through during their spring and fall migration.
Robins are gregarious and neighborly, spending time hunting for insects in the yard while we go about our daily yard chores, or raising their young in a nest just outside our bedroom window. They are visible, accessible, being equally at home in our backyards and in the deep woods.
Despite being similarly named, the American robin differs from the European robin in several ways. While the two have similar coloring, the European robin is in the flycatcher family, and is smaller than the American bird. The American robin is a thrush, meaning the two are not related.
It's barely five a.m. and the sun hasn't yet grazed the horizon. In the grey-dark, an American robin begins piping his melodic dawn song: “Day is here! Time to rise! Awake! Awake! Cheerio!” They say the early bird catches the worm, but I would prefer another couple hours of sleep.
Growing up in Wisconsin, robins were the first sign of spring, bringing sun and warmth back to the winter-dreary landscape, a proclamation that it was time to stow the snow shovels for another year. Legend held that the person who saw the first robin of spring would have good luck all year long.
By the end of April, Mr. and Mrs. Robin would have a clutch of speckled aqua-blue eggs in their nest, built a few weeks earlier in the needled protection of our front yard blue spruce tree. My dad would drag out the ladder and each of us kids would climb up to peer into the nest while the adult robins stood sentry nearby, ready to sound the alarm if we got too close. Soon we'd begin hearing the first faint peeps of the baby birds, with their Einsteinian fluff and mouths bigger than their heads. We'd continue to watch the nest each day, eager as mother robins ourselves for the babies to fledge. When the day finally arrived, we'd cheer them on from indoors, assigning each a score like Olympic divers. Not all the babies survived that initial flight; when we found a crash victim, we'd provide a proper burial in a tissue-lined box. Once the nest was empty, we'd collect the eggshells, and sometimes the nest itself, to take to school for show-and-tell. Over the next couple of weeks, we'd eagerly look around the yard for the robin parents and their young, counting to ensure all were present, marveling at how fast the babies were growing up.
Summer evenings we would sit on the back patio enjoying the warm breeze and watching the sun sink low as the fireflies began to flicker. Then the male robin would begin his evening serenade: “Day is done, all is well, time to rest. Sleep well, good night, good night!” Even now, many years later, I find the robin's evening song soothing and meditative at the end of the day.
In fall, then a whiff of coming winter arrived and the leaves began to take on flame hues, the robins would become strangely quiet. No more exuberant early-morning chorus, no more evening lullaby reminding us to relax after a long day. Now, they channeled all their energy into hunting berries, worms and insects, fattening up in earnest for the long trip south. When the first flurries of snow flew in, the robins would already be gone.
Moving to Texas in the early 2000s meant saying good-bye to that old friend. I traded my beloved robins for their thrushy cousin, the mockingbird. Oh sure, the mockingbird has those flashy white wingbars and can mimic the neighbor's car alarm. But their midnight oratorios didn't come close to the robin's cheery songs and unobtrusive demeanor.
The robin's taxonomic name doesn't sound terribly flattering: Turdus migratorius (despite the sound of it, it means “thrush” and “change of home”), but robins are smart. They are one of the few bird species who recognize and reject cowbird eggs in their nests. Robins will band together in large flocks to keep predators at bay. They've even appeared on Canadian paper money and have been the subject of at least two popular American songs. I missed them all those years, their cheeky music and pumpkin-colored breasts.
When I moved back to the Northwoods of Wisconsin a few years ago, one of the happeist moments for me was one early spring morning, seeing the first robins after many months of cold, grey winter. Four of them were bouncing across the still-partially-snowy front yard, their heads cocked to listen for the slow shuffle of an earthworm in the sod.
So the next time you see a robin, I hope you'll stop a minute to enjoy them and appreciate their proximity. No binoculars or hikes in the deep woods necessary! After all, it won't be long before they're gone again, on their journey south, until next spring.
Trees For Tomorrow’s campus, located in Eagle River, Wisconsin, includes National Forest property under permit from the USDA Forest Service. Private property owned by Trees For Tomorrow (TFT), the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and Tara Lila LLC are also utilized for education and outreach purposes.
Trees For Tomorrow is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
519 East Sheridan Street, PO Box 609
Eagle River Wisconsin 54521
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