When my boys were young, they found a baby robin in our backyard. That little bird ruled our world for a few days, but more remarkably, it brought me to my spiritual knees. My place in things — motherhood, nature, humanness — all came into question. A decade later, I am still pirouetting with the lessons, the most resonant being my wonderment at the place I hold among animals, which I find to be rather startling. The writer Wendell Berry said in one of my favorite poems, “I come into the peace of wild things.” What I learned was not — and is still not — entirely peaceful. But in being gobsmacked by a few ounces of feathers, I have been able to see the elegance and intelligence of things I didn’t see before. The skills and abilities we are given for our particular deed. It just comes to us. We are so lucky, so blessed, so capable — even while we find the limits of our own animalness.
The robin my boys found was clearly too young to be on her own. She had enough wing feathers to get herself safely out of a tree without a deadly landing, but her landing strip was a backyard ruled by boys and curious dogs. Her appearance at ground level was, of course, a breathless, wide-eyed event for my elementary-aged boys, who instantly and frantically began saving her. I was swearing silently while directing an evacuation of the backyard, contending with that horrible gut heaviness that comes when you know your heart is about to be split open. I peered hopefully out the window with the boys many times before dinner, watching to see if the robin parents would somehow come for her. That was my irrational hope.
Even with dogs and boys contained, it became apparent that this little robin didn’t have good odds. Mama was diving and squawking, but little bird wasn’t able to do much to help herself. And they didn’t stop to bring her dinner.
My weeping, pleading little boys could not and would not put her in the woods behind the garage where nature would take its course. They were sure (as was I) that little robin wouldn’t live long. Weeping turned to howling, accusations of cold-hearted indifference were issued like fiery arrows, and bargains were struck.
And so Peep, as she was victoriously named, was given luxurious roost in our screen house — a giant bird cage, safe from dogs, festooned with stick perches, shallow bowls of water, and a towel-lined laundry basket for nesting. One screen was removed, which would allow Peep’s parents access should they decide to feed their errant fledgling.
Turns out the robin parents were far more pragmatic than the human parent. The robins moved on after a few fly-bys while my parenting role expanded into a new and peculiar jurisdiction.
Morning comes quite early for robins, and Peep was doing her peep thing at dawn. I know this because I was, unlike yesterday’s nature enthusiasts, wide awake, worrying about a hungry bird I could hear from my open bedroom window.
At an acceptable hour, I called then-Duluth-resident Laura Erickson, the radio voice of the national “For the Birds” segment that can be heard on public and community radio stations. Laura didn’t give us much hope for success, but encouraged us to proceed carefully, guarding our hearts. Google produced enough information for us to feel that at least we could keep her fed with the right foods—primarily worms and forest fruits. It also revealed that harboring a fledgling robin is a violation of federal and state law.
We came forth with earth worm tidbits, torn into little slimy bite-sized chunks, dropped into her wide-open beak. Peep seemed to figure out how the chow line worked pretty quick, and before long when she saw one of us, she would begin calling to us. It was rather delightful to have a sweet little robin fall in love with me. I floated about, feeling a bit like Cinderella, magically conversing with my songbird friend. The boys spent the entire day working the worms, telling me, “See, Mom? Look how good she’s doing!”
Our Disney enchantment lasted just a few hours; Peep was, in fact, a domineering little dictator. Here’s what I learned… One baby robin eats about 14 feet worth of worms in the two weeks of nest life it usually enjoys, and worms aren’t even the main course. A robin parent—and there are two of them—might make up to 100 food delivery visits to the nest every day. Babes grow from raw, pink newbies who weigh only as much as a quarter to full-sized birds in about two to three weeks. They need tremendous amounts of food, from sun up to sundown, and that is no exaggeration. Every 10 to 20 minutes. Mercifully, it seems that baby robins shut down and shut up at night.
So our challenge became two-fold: We had to come up with an endless supply of worms and grubs, and we had to have a full-time bird feeder to present worms to Peep, as she would only eat what was stuffed in her craw, as opposed to picking up anything for herself.
While Peep pooped all over my screen house, flying five feet at a time and demanding more grub, I was transformed into a worm hunter. The boys began complaining, as expected, and lost interest after the first 100 worms or so. I suspected we may have depleted our supply, and directed them to begin digging in the neighbors’ yard. I turned over the boulders that made my garden walls, turned the compost piles. I soaked an area of lawn with the hose, forcing worms out of the ground. I paid neighbor kids for worms harvested in their yards. I raked the forest floor behind the garage, looking for anything I could catch in the leafy duff. As I drove to the grocery store, or to the baseball field with the boys, I found myself eyeing potential worm sites.
When the weather got cold and rainy, I gave in and began buying worms at a bait store. Three Styrofoam cups per trip. I was tossing $20 bills down, avoiding the questioning look of the clerks, who surely must have wondered at the intensity of my fishing habit after three days of worm purchases. I was too embarrassed to tell them I had a van full of kids in Little League uniforms screaming in the parking lot, and that I had to get my ass home to feed a pissed off robin.
I was exhausted, and actually near tears a few times. So much work. These are the things I was thinking: How, how, how, do robin parents know where worms are? How can robins look like they’re leisurely enjoying summer days when they’re working so relentlessly? How could I have misread their behavior for so many years? How do they possibly fledge two, even three, broods in a summer? How can I feel like these boys are so much work when they aren’t baby robins? How can I be so removed from nature that I cannot find worms? What if I can’t teach my boys to find worms?
I felt exquisitely vulnerable. I have a house, and a job, and a car. I can read and write. I have opposable thumbs. And I can’t find worms. I felt as if I were being shaken to my core, my entire understanding of my ability to survive as an animal on this planet brought into sharp question. I have a refrigerator filled with food, but I can’t even feed a bird, much less myself and my kids. I don’t understand anything.
I desperately wanted to have these existential discussions with anyone willing. People were clear with me—what in the hell are you talking about and why in the hell are you doing this to yourself? I felt lonely and isolated, frantic and resigned. Also proud. I realized that keeping this robin alive was hard work. Quietly, I also understood a commitment to living with these questions. And thankful–for being put in my place, which oddly also provided some sense of contented knowledge.
Peep quickly grew feathers and left our screen house, left decorated with her white droppings. We watched her flutter away into the woods behind the garage. She came back by every day for a week or so—we believed it was her—and she became less and less interested in us. Then she was gone.
It’s all so simple. It happens so often, so universally, that we don’t even know how astoundingly evolved we are for our work, or for our role as life-givers. It just comes to us. And yet it’s so hard. I could never keep myself safe and fed and still hunt for worms to feed a baby robin for any length of time. On this side of parenting, I don’t even know that I fed my own offspring with the grace and willingness of robins, over and over. I suspect my three sons would provide animated comment on that, given an audience.
I trust, however, that nature knows how to care for us. I’m not entirely sure what that means, as I was dumbfounded by a robin … but I do have a deep peaceful knowledge that there’s a hell of a lot more going on than I can fathom, and that I have what I need most days.
Three minutes of robin parenting: Take a look.
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