Leaving the Nest: Robins Take Flight

If you’ve kept up with my posts about our nesting robins, you’ve probably been wondering about the conclusion to the story. I’d been so sure they were going to leave on the weekend of the 27th/28th. They seemed to be getting too big to fit in the nest, but they managed to stay in there through the weekend. Although on Sunday night I could only see two of them, so I wondered if the first had already flown the coop, so to speak.

Two babies on July 29, the day before they left the nest
Two babies on July 29, the day before they left the nest

On Tuesday morning (July 30) I didn’t check the nest until about 10 am. Too late, the nest was completely empty!  I was so disappointed that I wasn’t able to see their first flights, but as soon as I saw that they’d fledged I ran outside with my camera to look for them.

I quickly found the mama bringing a worm to one of the fledglings in a smaller tree only a few feet from the nest tree. Then I saw another of the fledglings nearby. I never saw all three of them at once though. I knew the parents and babies would be nervous on this first day out of the nest, so I didn’t get too close or stay too long. I managed to get one good picture of a youngster with his short stubby tail:

First day out of the nest
First day out of the nest — time to grow some tail feathers!

Their tails don’t grow out until they leave the nest, probably because there’s no room in the confined space for those long feathers. And I’m sure that’s why they can’t fly well for the first week or two. I love those little stubby-tailed babies, don’t you?

An empty nest
An empty nest

It’s a bit of a letdown to see the empty nest when I look out the kitchen window now. I’d grown so accustomed to having to step around the spotting scope on its tripod in front of the sink, and checking up on them throughout each day.

I hope they’re surviving out there; I’ll probably never know. And the second robin’s nest on a branch over the garage? I see very little activity at that nest. I did see babies at one point, and have seen the female adult standing on the nest edge, but lately I don’t see much going on there. I can’t be sure what’s happened yet, but I’ll keep watching it for a while.

It’s been so much fun having the robins raise their family in a spot where we could easily watch them. I’ve learned a lot about the lives of these often-overlooked common birds. I’ve seen how the female does the hard and dirty work of building the nest, how she sits on those eggs through thunderstorms and unbearable heat, and how she and her mate run themselves ragged bringing food to hungry babies for the last two weeks. I watched them bring a variety of offerings to the gaping mouths: berries, grasshoppers, and worms.

I even learned something about earthworms. One day after a fishing trip, Eric dumped his leftover worms under the nest tree to help the parents feed their babies.  Coincidentally, I had just read a blog which had a link to this article by Rebecca Deatsman. It explains that the earthworms in the northern parts of the country are not natives but are introduced species, and why that matters to some ground-nesting birds. I encourage you to read it if you’re curious. But whether they’re natives or not, those fishing worms clearly provide vital nourishment for our native robins.

I find it so fascinating to learn about the interconnectedness (is that a word?) of the plants and animals I find while exploring the natural world. Every species plays a role in the ecosystem, and the presence or absence of each one has a ripple effect through the entire system. If you’re someone who loves learning for its own sake — like me — you’ll appreciate how curiosity about one thing often leads to learning about another, and how much fun it can be to discover something new about how the world works.

I’ve been meaning to tell you about two books I’ve really loved recently:” target=”_blank”> Bringing Nature Home and ” target=”_blank”>Field Guide to Eastern Forests. The first one gave me a “light bulb” moment when it made clear to me, finally, why it’s important to use native plants in our yards and gardens. I’d “known” for years that it was important, but never truly understood the reasons for that importance. This book made it all crystal clear. Maybe soon I can write more about it here (or you can read the book yourself — I highly recommend it). And the Peterson Guide to Eastern Forests is helping me understand which types of trees and plants grow in specific areas, and how each habitat changes with the seasons. Things you either think you already know, or things you never thought to even consider…I just love it. Maybe I seem like a dorky bookworm to some of you, but I make no apologies. After all, what good is knowledge if you don’t share it, right? 🙂

A Robin Nesting in our Yard!

Friday: About a week ago I’d noticed some robins flying in and out of a particular oak tree in our yard; I was curious but didn’t think they were doing anything of a permanent nature in there and I quickly forgot about it. But I looked out the kitchen window this morning and saw a robin repeatedly going into that area again. Grabbing the binoculars, I quickly located her sitting on her nest and felt a tingle of excitement go up my spine.

As I wrote last time, I treasure any opportunity to see a bird on a nest because it’s such an intimate look into their fascinating lives. And this is the very first time I’ve ever found a nesting bird in my own yard! Every year I get to see parent birds feeding their adorable fledglings, but this is just too awesome for words.

The nest is about 35 feet from the house and 10 feet above the ground. It’s situated so far out on a branch that I’m surprised there’s enough support for it. It’s pretty well hidden by the surrounding leaves, but I found a vantage spot in the yard where I can see it better. Hoping to document this special find, I took my camera out and stationed myself behind a big tree about 40 feet away.

Female robin with a beak full of something, just before entering the nest
Female robin with a beak full of something, just before entering the nest

In this picture you can see her beak is full of something… maybe mulch or dirt for adding to the nest. You can also see a bare spot on her upper breast. It seems pretty high for a brood patch, but I think that’s what it must be. (A brood patch is a bare area where the bird’s body heat can be transferred to the incubating eggs easier.) Update: An experienced birder tells me that’s probably just muddy feathers from gathering nesting materials.

I don’t think any eggs have hatched yet because I don’t hear any babies chirping when she comes back to the nest. I guess I don’t even know for sure that she’s laid any eggs yet. She flies off the nest about every couple minutes and pecks in the yard, then goes back and settles down again. I wonder if she’s just getting food for herself? In some species the parents take turns on the nest so each can go eat and rest, but in others the male will bring food to the female as she remains on the nest.  Hmm, wait here a sec while I go read about this in Birds of North America….

Robin sitting on nest
Robin sitting on nest

Ok, I’m back. It turns out that in robins, the male does not bring food to the female on the nest. She takes brief breaks during the day to feed herself. Aha, that explains it. And this is possibly her second brood of the season because this nest is located in a deciduous tree; BNA says the first nest is usually in an evergreen tree. Interesting. And we’ve seen a recently-fledged robin being fed in the yard lately, so perhaps this is the same parent, starting her second family of the summer.

The female incubates the eggs for 2 weeks. After they hatch, the babies remain in the nest for 2 more weeks. Then they leave the nest (fledge), but are still unable to fly well for 10-14 more days. That’s going to be the time I worry most, because of this:

Bird- and chipmunk-killing cat
Bird- and chipmunk-killing cat

This is the cat I wrote about last year, which has been back stalking birds near our feeders again. Birds that can’t fly are going to be easy prey for this experienced hunter. You’ll notice a white tag hanging on the cat’s collar; I wrote a note to the owners that said: “Your cat is killing our birds. Next time I’m taking him to Animal Control.” I feel a bit like the Wicked Witch of the West for that (“I’ll get you my pretty…and your little dog too!”). But I figured I’d give them one more chance to be responsible and keep the cat indoors.

Anyway, back to the robin. I went out to run some errands and got caught in a thunderstorm as I was heading back toward home. My first thought as I entered my driveway was for the robin’s nest. I felt so bad for her being tossed around by the wind and battered by the rain. I worried that the nest might be destroyed. I pitied her sitting there in the elements, just enduring it. What choice does a bird have, after all? She can’t grab an umbrella and pull on a jacket. She can’t go indoors and sit by the warm fire with a cup of tea to wait until the storm passes. No, she has to keep those eggs warm constantly, rain or shine.

I’m thrilled to have this life drama playing out so visibly in my yard, but it’s already made me realize something: Considering the hazards of their lives, every single baby bird that survives is a miracle.  And that alone is a reason enough to love and respect birds.

Sunday update: After the storm on Friday I didn’t see the robin all day Saturday. I was worried that she’d abandoned the nest. Then today I glanced out the window and saw two birds in an altercation below the nest. I grabbed the binoculars and saw the robin and a female cowbird. Holy nest parasite, Batman! Maybe the cowbird was trying to lay an egg in the robin’s nest. (That’s what cowbirds do, by the way. It’s a way to get other birds to raise their babies for them.) As the cowbird flew off, the robin also attacked a chipmunk that was too close to her nest, stabbing at it with her bill. It took a few tries before the chipmunk got the message, but it worked. And a few minutes later, after judging it safe again, the robin flew up and sat on the nest! I’m so glad to see her there again, but see what I meant about the dangers of a bird’s life? Wow, I don’t know how they do it….

Robin back on the nest after fighting off a cowbird and a chipmunk
Robin back on the nest after fighting off a cowbird and a chipmunk