LAST YEAR, ROBINS built a nest on the board across the ceiling that supports a light fixture in the dog shed off our garage. They studiously created a beautiful nest; since robins are relatively large songbirds, their nests are pretty large as well. Long pieces of dried grass trickled decoratively over the edges like tinsel on a Christmas tree. The bare lightbulb comes on with a switch that also operates the light in the garage; the dried grass seemed like a fire hazard, so I pulled the cord to keep that bulb in the off position when the switch is on.
I stood on a stool, extended my arm, directed my phone into the nest and snapped a photo which is how I knew that four eggs that define the color “robin’s egg blue” were tucked into the nest. Before long four not-handsome robin chicks were poking their heads over the edge of the nest demanding feeding.
The adult robins at first would fly out of the shed when the dogs entered. They eventually decided that two 15-pounders that barely stand a foot above the ground and one big but old black lab were not particularly threatening. Little did they know that their offspring would be in grave danger.
Not knowing that the babies had fledged, one day I let the dogs out into the shed and the two littles immediately started running around like they were chasing tennis balls bounced on the floor. But the tennis balls were robin fledglings. The fledglings did not survive the onslaught. I felt terrible about this. The female robin had spent two weeks incubating the eggs, two more weeks tending to nestlings, and then who knows how far they were into fledgling stage, which lasts up to a month, and boom, they’re dead. By winter, I took the nest down so I could feel it was safe to use the light again.
The American robin is perhaps second only to the bald eagle in recognition factor. Their range is the entire continental United States plus Alaska. In northern New England, robins are always thought of as a light at the end of winter’s tunnel; robins appear and spring is not far behind. But many do, and always have, wintered over in this area. We think we don’t see them in the winter because they leave our lawns — where the classic pose is with head cocked to one side “listening” for a worm — and spend their time above ground in trees and shrubs having changed their food source from worms and bugs to fruits and berries. Male robins tend to roost together overnight year-round with females joining after nesting season is over.
Given the lack of success last year, I was surprised to see a robin constructing a nest in the same spot in the dog shed again this year. It was not long before the female was incubating eggs. And then in what seemed like a brief amount of time, there were crabby-looking baby robins’ heads peering above the nest wall. I closed the dog shed and its pen down when I first spotted the nest and relegated the dogs to their backyard.
Just a couple hours before I wrote this, I came back from a walk in the woods to see a fledgling robin sitting in the middle of the doorway to the dog shed. One life saved. Of course, the birds do not know which pen is safe and which is not — shortly after I saw the same fledgling in the backyard at just about the same time the dogs noticed it. Luckily, it was not trapped in a shed and was able to escape the dog yard once it realized the danger. I don’t know how the robin parents stand the stress of keeping them safe, but brood one does seem to be a wrap.
Robins have as many as three broods a year with only 25% surviving to see the new year, according to allaboutbirds.org. I guess before I open the shed and pen back up to the dogs, I will wait to see if another batch is in the making. With just 25% survival rate (that would be 250 fledglings per thousand born as compared to human survival rates of 999 children in 1,000, according to statista.com), they need to produce as many offspring as they can manage. The entire population, the website says, “turns over on average of every six years.” The oldest American robin on record lived to be 13 years and 11 months.
One last curious thing about robins: Even though they have been studied a lot, according to several sources their courtship ritual remains unknown. This has led many to believe they do not have one at all. Very down-to-business birds!
Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at email@example.com.