She flew into the yard for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, drawn by a clear, crisp song. The stiff coldness of the air had broken, leaving the world feeling like a refrigerator that had been left open. The ever-lengthening days were pleasant enough, but nights on her favorite branch still required her to puff her belly feathers to warm her feet.
She landed on a rock to listen and look. The territory was appealing. A stream bisected a long expanse of grassland that must be filled with worms; beyond it were trees of many varying sizes, and a large brush pile of useful material. There was a wooden platform north of the creek, on which other birds would light from time to time – a pair of doves, two blue jays, four or five cardinals, and a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird. Though there were several dogs in the area, she saw no cats. There were no doubt hawks lurking about, but bluejays would usually chase them off if they flew too close. Blue jays could be miserable tormentors, known for plucking baby robins from the nest for no reason other than reducing the competition. But as long as the jays left her alone and focused exclusively on the hawks, their presence could be a benefit.
This was a gamble, of course. But her life thus far had taught her that every proposition involved at least one big risk, one giant leap of faith. The trick was deciding which leap to make.
The gentleman who’d claimed the territory was sufficiently attractive as well. A competent musician, his was the song that had called her from the sky as she made her persistent way north. He was perched on the grayish-white bark of a broad sycamore branch, thoroughly involved in his song. She evaluated him carefully. His head was an even, dark charcoal grey, and his perfectly rounded chest was a rich auburn. She listened for a few more moments, and considered the whole.
This would do nicely.
She could hear the worms.
She stood with the gentleman in a large square of leaf litter, listening to them move in the new soil. One golden day the previous autumn, the gentleman had watched from a maple branch as two humans dumped dead leaves inside a perfectly bounded thirty-by-thirty foot patch of earth. Humans were always doing such things, moving about here and there, tailed by a big oaf of a dog, and he hadn’t bothered to wonder what they were doing. But when the ground began to thaw the following spring, more worms than he’d ever heard in one place began to move under the decomposed leaf litter.
He showed her the spot soon after she arrived. They both stood, mesmerized, listening to the worms chewing their way through the soil: a birdly dinner bell. To them, it sounded like what a person might hear when human feet were crunching on gravel. Unable to restrain herself, she ran to a spot where the sound was loudest, brushed aside the leaf litter with her beak, and yanked an earthworm from the ground.
And so they began to run, each in the direction of a sound, to stop, listen, and strike: run, freeze, listen, strike, pull, gobble.
Down the hatch. Repeat.
Brunch that day was delicious.
As the days gathered, she began to feel restless, the way one feels when it’s past time to accomplish a task, but the resources to do it aren’t available. There was plenty of food; that wasn’t the problem. There was just something missing. She occupied her time flying from branch to branch, landing on shed roofs and under piles of brush, on the rock bridge over the stream, and in the Y of the sycamore tree. Over the course of the days, she began to know the place. There was a small pile of dead ornamental grass on the slope north of the stream, and more twigs than could ever be exhausted in the brush pile. But nothing to bind it all together, which somehow she knew it needed to be.
Some assembly was required, it seemed. But with what?
She was perched on a sugar maple branch one gloomy late morning, preening her feathers, when she heard it – the terrifying, shrill call of a hawk. She looked around for somewhere, anywhere, to go. In the space of a single second, her eye was drawn from the maple at a new angle toward a railing underneath the big wooden platform. Instinct lifted her wings before she even knew where she was going. No sooner had she landed safely on the railing than an unholy scream charged the air. Two blue blurs zoomed past her like compact avian superheroes, zipping toward the sycamore where the Cooper’s hawk had landed. She peered out from her newfound alcove to watch the scene unfold.
At first, the hawk pretended to ignore the jays as they fluttered and swooped at the much larger bird, beating their wings furiously and disturbing its peace, like a cloud of stable flies might harass a horse. At first, the hawk hopped in place a little, hoping to dislodge them. When that failed, the bird stretched out its beautifully mottled, almost striped wings, as if to remind the jays who was the bigger, stronger character. But the jays were relentless, and not intimidated. At length the hawk, wearing an expression of the utmost weary annoyance, lifted its massive wings and flew north from the sycamore, leaving an audible woosh, woosh, woosh in its wake. Unsatisfied with this concession, the jays took off and tailed the hawk until it was safely out of the territory, before zooming back triumphantly.
When not alarmed, blue jays are slow fliers, and hawks can easily pluck them from mid-air. These birds were simply unwilling to tolerate that particular threat in the yard. On that day, no matter the jays’ otherwise antisocial tendencies, the enemy of her enemy had been her friend.
Today, there had been a net under her leap of faith.
After the hawk was gone, she took a moment to survey her surroundings. She had landed on a broad wood beam with plenty of space. Filtered sunlight shone through the narrow space between the boards above her head. The space was so well sheltered that she could feel none of the breeze that whistled through the trees across the stream. But most importantly, she had never noticed this space before. And if she hadn’t noticed it before, it was unlikely the jays had either. And no hawk would fit into this small area.
She had a place.
In the middle of the night, her favorite sleeping branch began to sway alarmingly, first a little bit, then constantly and more dramatically. This branch, ordinarily well protected from the elements, was now moving back and forth and up and down in a hard, constant wind. With a brief flap of her wings, she moved closer to the trunk, hoping to find a more stable perch. Raindrops began to pelt the leaf cover above; one, then two, then ten, then a hundred all at once. A loud crack of thunder sounded in the distance. She snuggled closer to the trunk and fell back asleep to the steady sound of the rain.
Morning arrived to reveal that she now had everything required to build her nursery. Flying out from the sugar maple in the pre-dawn gray, she saw the creek running vigorously, perhaps even too much for the big oaf dog to jump over. On the walls of the creek she found her last ingredient: a coating of thick, brown mud. Meanwhile, earthworms were everywhere, having chosen the rainy morning to make the trip to new territory, unburdened by worries of death from dehydration. She plucked a couple of them from the grass for breakfast, and was on her way.
The gentleman brought her twigs and grasses – in the end, exactly 354 pieces of dried grass and twigs, and one large tuft of tail fur from the big oaf dog – while she patiently and diligently carried beakful after beakful of mud back to the nook where she’d hidden from the hawk. After applying each pat of mud to the carefully arranged grasses, she hopped into the bowl of the nest and tamped it all down with her feet and breast. In between mud collecting trips, she added a piece of plastic bag floating down the swollen creek, and later on the afternoon of the second day, several of the long ornamental grasses from the north slope. These dangled two feet from the base of the completed nest, giving it a Rapunzel-like quality. On the morning of the third day, she and the gentleman perched on the railing, considering their work. It was finished.
Though she didn’t know it, a story had been brewing deep in the center of herself as she’d gone about her nest-building. Underneath her reddish feathers and beyond her skin, under layers of muscle and fat, lay an organ with the graceful and improbable shape of a cluster of grapes. One of the grape-like objects had become much larger than the others, and that oddball grape grew bigger and bigger, until one day, after a long breakfast in the earthworm field, it popped off the bunch. Then, like an errant child in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it fell down a chute. As the yolk worked its way through her oviduct, her body released a shower of substances on it – first watery albumens, and then, further down, some calcium compounds to wrap it all up in a neat, self-contained package. These shell-forming substances were tinged with a lovely blue pigment called biliverdin – the same stuff that would give a human a queasily greenish bruise, but in her case, formed the color known as robin’s egg blue.
Thus formed, the egg continued its travels until, immediately before emergence, it turned 180 degrees on its horizontal axis, and presented itself blunt end first.
And so she found herself, one mid-morning, perched on the edge of her long-awaited nest, staring down at a single, perfect blue egg. She had done this. She felt a curious sort of avian satisfaction; this was good.
And yet, even as she beheld the egg, another of the grapes was growing inside her.
She was going to need more worms.
All in all, she created four blue eggs. As she developed her daily routine –a pre-dawn breakfast in the worm field, then back to the nest for a day of egg-laying – she began to shed the downy feathers on her chest, just under her tummy feathers. By the time she had produced those four perfect eggs – and not a moment before – she settled into the nest and pressed her nearly bare belly against them, transferring just enough of her one-hundred-and-four degrees of body heat to her brood-to-be to spur them to grow within their shells. Thus warmed, the contents of the eggs began to alchemize into chicks.
She had no memory of her own hatching the year before, but she had required a full day to emerge from her shell. Her escape commenced when the oxygen supply in her egg became a bit too scarce. For many days, oxygen had been flowing from the pores of her shell into the narrow blood vessels lining its inner surface, and from there into her body. But near the end of her development, as she came to resemble less a white spot on a yolk and more a lumpy mass of incipient robin, that arrangement became insufficient to sustain her. So, like all other robins before her, she set in motion an elegantly choreographed race against time.
First, she began the process of shutting down the blood vessels that had been her lifeline from the beginning, and sucking the blood from those vessels into her body. Then, she used a small but sharp protuberance on the tip of her mandible to puncture the air sac at the blunt end of her egg, where her head lay. That accomplished, she took her real draught of air, inaugurating her young lungs and bathing her cells in energy-giving oxygen. From there, she drew the remainder of the yolk into her body from the stalk connecting it to her intestines – another energy source for the transition at hand.
After that, she had a few hours of air left in the now-punctured air sac. Time to get busy. Enabled by a newly developed muscle in her neck, she began to thrust her beak and egg tooth against the inside of the shell, repeatedly and persistently, until she met success. Once she had pecked out a hole in the shell, she took a first breath of sweet, out-of-the-egg air, eagerly sucking in an energizing oxygen rush. This was her only sensory experience of the unknown outside world to which she was steadily, faithfully hurtling herself; she would have no vision for another five days, when her eyes would pop open at last.
She continued pecking, but now she could bring her shoulders to bear against the egg as well as her feet, which were tucked into the pointed end of the shell and offered leverage. From time to time she would rest, tired from her first real exertion. But eventually, thanks to oxygen, the gifts of physiology, and her own efforts, she won her freedom at last. Her first act as a hatchling was to open wide her enormous, swaying beak and beg an unknowable someone for food. Blind, instinctive faith was rewarded when her mother landed on the edge of the nest and transferred a meal from her own narrower, adult beak to her bright yellow mouth that nature had designed to be unmistakable.
Comfortably full and exhausted, she settled into the nest next to a sibling and fell immediately asleep.
It was a good time to retreat under the wood boards. The mild spring temperatures had been fleeting, and heat had arrived. The light near the nest was dim all day, except for thin slivers of sun slipping through the cracks in the afternoon. Light was entirely absent at night, as the nook was entirely out of reach of the moon.
Every afternoon at 5, when the sunshine had reached such a golden intensity she could no longer resist its lure, she flew out from under the platform and joined the gentleman in the grass to hunt worms or forage for berries. She stayed out no longer than ten or fifteen minutes at a time. That was plenty of time to fill her belly before flying back to the nest, where she would carefully turn each egg to prevent the chick from sticking to the shell.
Every now and then during the day, the gentleman would fly into the nook to bring her a particularly tasty worm or a fat berry. This was a quiet time for both of them; in another week, if their efforts were successful, they would be flying endlessly to and fro, filling large, demanding mouths with food. After a time, the gentleman would take over caring for their fledglings, and she would start the entire process all over again. She may even complete a third brood before winter came.
She was a long way from winter now, suspended exactly between her first and second. There was enough to appreciate in a winter’s life; the security and warmth of a large flock, the trip south to find fruit, and the end of it, when, tired of berries, everyone dispersed and moved north to find worms and start new families. But she was here, now, participating in the anticipation of the season at hand, including her four blue eggs. It was a timeless rhythm, a robin’s rhythm, circular and complete.
On the morning of the thirteenth day, she took leave of the nest during the golden hour, as she did every day. When she arrived back on the railing, the egg in the northwest corner of the nest bore a nearly imperceptible crack. She nestled back onto the eggs, unaware of the events unfolding beneath her. An hour later, though she couldn’t see it, just the barest tip of an egg tooth protruded from the split shell.
As she sat there on the cusp of success, the golden light dimmed and the clouds gathered. And the crack in the shell grew wider still.
The sky darkened, and the distant call of a hawk intermingled with a low rumble of thunder. Wind began stir the grass on the worm fields.
Beneath her, a piece of shell split suddenly and irretrievably from its larger whole, leaving a tiny, wet head in its place.
It was going to be a long night.
In the course of coming up with this story I read the articles here, here, and here. I also read this amazing book excerpt here. For the principle that robins use their hearing to hunt instead of just their vision, I read this study. (I understand this is one study, but it sure is an interesting one.)
Robins are cool.