Robins 'n' Me, Protecting the Nest -- A Springtime Tale

Be honest. Have you ever found birds tenderly endearing? Even a little?

I don't mean attractive. Sure, they can be beautiful

Or interesting -- they are, after all, flying mini-T Rexs, evolutionarily-speaking.

And I don't mean moved or beguiled by their songs, something universal.

Or fascinated and, especially if you’re a kid, envious of their ability to fly. I mean, come on, how cool is that?

Watching them tend to their young can actually bring an opposite feeling. Like maybe retching. Bugs from mama’s beak right down the throat of an often bald, screeching critter? It’s more scary or revolting than cute. The cartoon movie A Bug’s Life got it right – terrified grasshopper villain kicking and screaming right down the gullet.

Hitchcock also tapped into -- or maybe created -- plenty of bird-a-phobia (ornithophobia’s the actual term), begetting a generation of bird-haters.

It might be why there are so many sort-of vegetarians, those swearing off the slaughter of friendly cows and pigs, but are fine slashing into the carcass of a chicken or turkey. In Hitchcock’s world, it’s us or them.

I know birders (F.K.A. bird-watchers) probably love them unconditionally, but fetishists tend to love everything about their Objets de desir.

No, I’m referring to that little whoosh of heart-pang you get from some other animals. Like watching a divinely cute golden retriever adopt a darling little kitten as it snuggles into the crook of the furry doggy neck, and a zillion other Hallmark-etable moments provided by countless creatures.

Maybe it’s because birds don’t remind us of us. They seem so...different. Birds don’t wear their emotions on their sleeves because they can’t even have sleeves because they don’t have arms. They’re no more cuddly than a fish.

We can relate to that dog and the kitten.

But birds? Nope.

At least not until this morning.

It’s a zoological ritual that did it to me, something I guess I’ve distractedly noticed before. And I have always known what it’s about.

But over the past few weeks, walking the couple of miles through pre-dawn leafy suburban side streets to the train, I’ve focused on it.

This being spring in the Midwest means its robin reproduction time, when they build nests, lay eggs, and tend to their offspring.

It’s also a dangerous time. If you’re a robin with tasty eggs and even tastier bits of chirping birdy meat sheltered by nothing more than a little straw basket, the world is full of big, hungry, carnivorous monsters.

Like me. I’m sometimes hungry, I’m a giant compared to them, and I’m carnivorous as hell. No, I’m not on the prowl for bird tartar, but how do they know?

So over and over, probably twenty times each morning, a robin will fly right past me into the street, and then hop around, chirping away, staring me down. Once I pass and the distance between us increases, Mister bird stands and watches before flitting back to the tree.

The rest of the year, you don’t see robins hanging around in the middle of the street. It’s a treacherous place, where cats and cars live. Robins don’t belong on the ground. They have wings. They can fly. Hello?

But in April, May and June, biological imperative drives them to the asphalt. When something’s coming – and that something is me every morning – and that something might be looking for a bird-fast, Mr. or Ms. robin darts away from their nested treasures right past the monster and away from the nest. They’re doing a sort of, “Nya nya, come and get me! Wanna tasty treat? Here I am! I dare ya, no, I double dog dare ya!”

Time after time after time, with almost every house and shaded back yard I pass, it happens. Robin zips past, lands, hollers, hip-hops, then stops, watches, and flies back.

It’s called paratrepsis. It’s also called distraction display or diversionary display but those are less impressive words to throw around at birder parties.

They’re risking it all, playing the evolutionarily-driven odds that their babes, and all robins to come, stand a better chance of survival if Mom and Dad risk their own necks and play decoy. And, based on the fact that they’re still around, they’re right.

And that’s why I feel a bit of love for these hyper little critters I’ve never felt before -- more kinship, a one-dad-to-another empathy with the challenges of dealing with a world not always friendly to our kids.

They’re protecting them, doing everything possible to help them grow up so they eventually can safely, and in their case, literally, leave the nest.

I wonder if mama robins ever complain that they never call, they never write?

Well, maybe they’re not THAT much like us.

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