Friday, May 13, 2011

What Terrible Language!

Motionless she sat

I had just sat down at the edge of our blackberry patch to begin rooting out mugwort when I heard the most terrible language—letting me know I was persona non grata.

I was surprised by the noise—which was coming from a purple-leaf plum tree about 40 feet away. I couldn’t see the fowl-beaked speaker, who must have been hidden inside the plum tree. But I knew from his sound that he was an American Robin, and he wanted me to move on—pronto.

But I was 40 feet away. Why was he yelling at me?

Suddenly I thought I knew why. I slowly turned to my left and looked up into the variegated holly that grows at the southeast corner of our house, about five feet from where I sat. My eyes focused up and into tree. About three feet above the ground, near the trunk, behind a prickly fortress of leaves, was a nest on which a second robin sat motionless.

I smiled, and went to retrieve my camera from inside the house. When I returned, I moved slowly toward the tree. The robin on the nest didn’t move a feather, even when I was just two feet away.

I fiddled with my camera for a second or two and when I focused on the nest I noticed that the robin has turned, bill now pointing east, not west. How did she do that in an instant, without my seeing?

I took several photos and returned to rooting out mugwort and slowly worked my way down the blackberry bed and away from the nesting robin.

And I thought about the bird on the nest—and the one in the plum tree: devotion, maternal and paternal instinct, courage in view of what might be a monstrous danger.

What chance is there that the eggs in the nest will hatch, grow, and fledge? Squirrels or blue jays might brunch on the eggs. A crow, feral cat, raccoon, or an opossum might dine on the hatchlings.

I recalled the “Urban Jungle” column by Patterson Clark in the Washington Post that indicated that there is only a 55% probability that one hatchling will survive and fledge from the open nest.

The robins might sense I’m the biggest threat to their nest, but I am now a protector. When I hear the jays screaming or the crows cawing in the morning, I step outside and make my presence known. They quickly move on.

But I cannot be on guard 24/7.

So I wonder. How many will live long enough to leave the nest?

To read Patterson Clark’s “Urban Jungle” column, “Success in the City,” CLICK HERE.


  1. Appreciate your blog. I've wondered the same thing as I wake each morning listening to the crows cawing or blue jays squawking. The birds have a difficult time hatching their young. Nature is cruel to each other, and yet as I think about it, maybe we humans aren't too kind to each other either...such as our words and actions that can kill too!

  2. Good observation, WVa J. Maybe we aren't so much different from the crows and jays.

  3. Robins didn't complain when I walked near their nest in the holly yesterday afternoon. When I stopped to take a look, the nest was empty--no sitting robin--no eggs--no hatchlings--just the empty nest with no sign of struggle or attack. I won't guess what happened. I don't think we can say, "Happy Ending."

  4. We have two baby cardinals in a nest right outside the kitchen window. It's a treat to watch their attentive parents. I do worry that when they fledge, they might regret that their parents chose a prickly juniper near a concrete areaway as their home.