The Wisdom of Birds

A pair of robins taught me some valuable life lessons.

Posted Jun 29, 2017

Robin With Young in Nest photograph copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper
Source: Robin With Young in Nest photograph copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper

My mother was a great admirer of birds.  During my childhood, she kept a bird feeder in our back yard, and I remember her donning a faded yellow parka, pulling on her boots, and happily trudging through the snow on winter days to fill the feeder with seed and something called suet.  Suet, she explained to her two puzzled children with the cold-weather wisdom of one raised in New England, would give her feathered visitors the extra energy they needed to survive Pennsylvania’s frostiest months.  The birds rewarded her with frequent visits to her feeder, scolding each other as they competed for the choicest morsels and scattering birdseed on the snow.

My mother maintained her love of birds to the end of her life.  The nursing home where she spent her last six years was next to a beautiful public park with macadam paths where I pushed her in her wheelchair as she looked and listened for her favorites.  The nursing home also had a circular courtyard with a huge spruce tree in its center.  On our periodic visits to the courtyard, my mother would whistle at the birds perched in the broad branches as we made our way slowly around the tree. 

After our promenade, I would place the wheelchair next to one of the courtyard benches and sit beside my mother as she carried on a kind of conversation with these birds.  She would whistle a few notes, then stop and wait for one or two of the boldest birds to reply—sometimes with a chirp or two, sometimes with an ornate melody.  I could never be certain whether the birds were really answering my mother or whether the timing of their songs was simply a coincidence.  But I concealed my skepticism.  I was glad to see that, as she struggled gallantly with the indignities of Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, my mother still delighted in the antics of her feathered friends.

My mother passed away in 2009; among the volumes from her library that I inherited were four well-thumbed bird guides, including a 1950 reproduction of John James Audubon’s classic “Birds of America.”  I enjoyed having these guides on my bookshelf as a reminder of my mother but, until I moved last fall from a city apartment to a small townhouse in a leafy suburb near a mountain, I never used any of them for their intended purpose.

My habits began to change with the arrival of spring in my new neighborhood.  The kitchen window of my house faces a densely wooded area that is home to a multitude of birds.  Without expending any effort beyond looking out the window when I am at the kitchen sink, I have already identified, with the help of my mother’s guides, a common yellow-shafted flicker, a scarlet tanager and a red-winged blackbird—none of which I ever laid eyes on during my years as a city dweller.  And in early June I hit bird-watching pay dirt when I discovered that a pair of robins had built a nest in a sheltered area atop a support beam under my back deck—a spot I could easily observe from behind the sliding glass door in my basement that leads to the patio under the deck.

For three consecutive days after I noticed that three baby robins had hatched, I could barely tear myself away from my observation post.  I took dozens of photos: of the youngsters waiting impatiently, beaks upturned and wide open, while their parents foraged for food; of the parents arriving at the nest with worms and berries; and of the parents clearing the nest of what a wonderful online site, “Birds of North America,” explained are “fecal sacs”—that is, the baby-robin equivalent of dirty diapers.         

To my untrained eye, the parents’ work seemed repetitive, endless and exhausting.  Every few minutes, an adult robin would fly up to the nest, drop a worm in an upturned beak, then stand back on the support beam and observe its greedy and seemingly ungrateful offspring for a moment or two.  Next, the parent would hop up on the edge of the nest, drop its head to pick up a fecal sac with its beak, and then fly off to the branch of a tree in the woods thirty feet from the nest, perching there for a few moments before winging off again to look for more worms or berries.

For the first two days, even though my bird guides assured me this was a two-parent job, I thought that just one bird was doing all of this work, and I could not fathom how it had the stamina to continue.  Then, at the end of Day Two of my observations, I had the good luck to see a second robin arrive at the nest just as the first robin flew away.  (In my defense, these robins looked quite similar—at least to my human eye.)  On Day Three, the second robin landed on the support beam while the first robin was finishing its work at the nest, and for a second or two they perched on the beam together.  Alas for posterity, my camera shutter was not quick enough for me to capture this image digitally, but it remains imprinted on my mind’s eye.

By the end of Day Three, the baby robins had grown so much that the boldest of the trio had started stretching and testing its small wings as if preparing to take flight.  Clearly, the parents’ strict adherence to the punishing feeding schedule had paid off: They had three chicks almost ready to leave the nest.

I was away from home all day on Day Four; when I pulled back the curtains covering the patio’s sliding door on the afternoon of Day Five, I got a mild shock:  The nest was empty and the parents were nowhere in sight.  After I recovered from my surprise, I hoped that the young robins had fledged and left the nest.  But a part of me felt both forlorn and concerned.  Even to me, a beginning birder, the chicks did not seem ready to go.  And when my next-door neighbor told me later that day he had found and killed a five-foot-long black snake on his patio—which is less than 20 feet from the robins’ nest—I feared the worst: that the snake had killed the young robins before my neighbor killed the snake.  Bird-watching, it seems, is not for those who insist on happy endings.  

Still, as I reflected on the small miracle of nature, nurture and instinct I had the privilege of watching unfold over the course of three days, I realized that the adult robins represented a beautiful example of the diligent pursuit of a goal, no matter how daunting its challenges.  And their avian behavior offered some useful lessons that humans pursuing their own goals could perhaps benefit from.  They include:     

A job worth doing is worth doing well.  The “Birds of North America” online site informed me that adult robins visit the nest with food for their young between six and seven times an hour all through the day—a timetable that coincided with my own observations.  These parents were dedicated and seemingly tireless.

Teamwork is vital.  I am something of a loner, and I often prefer to tackle big jobs—even ones as mundane as cleaning up after a dinner party—on my own.  The robins’ harmonious approach to jointly feeding their young could serve to remind us loners that “I’d rather do it myself” is not always the best game plan.

Take time for yourself.  As I mentioned, after each adult robin’s visit to the nest, it would invariably fly to a tree some 30 feet away and perch quietly on a branch high above the ground for a few minutes, looking back at the nest.  I could not help but imagine it thinking, “Oy, these kids! They’re killin' me!” as it stole a brief time-out from nursery duties before plunging back into the rigors of food gathering and food delivery.

Sing as if everyone is listening.  Robins are known for their song, which one of my mother’s ancient bird guides (“Land Birds East of the Rockies” by Chester A. Reed, published in 1951) described as "a loud, cheery carol, often long continued.”  One evening a few weeks ago I was out for a walk in my neighborhood when I heard a robin’s song, which I traced to a fearless, red-breasted crooner perched at the very top of the gabled roof of a house.  Ornithologists might posit, as the “Birds of North America” site does, that robins sing to protect their territories and attract mates.  But this bird seemed to be singing for the pure joy of it; its song was as gloriously musical as anything composed for the human voice by Mozart or Handel.  I listened spellbound for a few minutes and then walked on, feeling as if the robin had transmitted some of its expansive joy to me.

I plan to continue my observations of the birds in my neighborhood—although if another pair of robins builds a nest under my deck I might strive to become less attached to them and their offspring.  I haven’t started whistling at the birds, as my mother did with such great delight in her last years.  But as the actions of so many human public figures in our country become less and less comprehensible, it is comforting to know that the world of backyard birds can provide an absorbing respite—even if it is only temporary and always dimly understood.

Copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper

Robin With Young in Nest photograph copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper