Lessons Learned From a Robin’s Nest

Earlier this spring  a shaggy sculpture of twigs, reeds, and string appeared on the outer brick ledge of my bedroom window. Shortly thereafter, four Tiffany blue eggs were deposited in the nest, and that is when I learned that the nest was the quaint handiwork of an industrious robin. I’d involved my toddler son in the daily filling of our bird feeders since he was a chubby-thighed infant tucked snugly in his Moby, and I hoped that introducing him to the nest and its future inhabitants could be a shared and fun learning experience.

Before leaving our bedroom after we woke each morning, I’d open the window’s blinds and we’d greet the nest (sometimes startling the mama robin, oops!) and count the eggs together. Before he rocked our son to bed at night, my husband would peek in on the nest and the two of them would bid it goodnight. The nest became part of our daily routine, and it was not uncommon for my son to disappear down the hall, only for me to find him standing below our bedroom window, enthusiastically gesturing towards the nest, asking for a peek.

When the babies–four bizarre little creatures with sparsely tufted, translucent skin and ginormously splayed, eager beaks–finally hatched, the real excitement began. They really were quite ugly, to be honest, and my son watched with curious, wide eyes when they’d thrust their hungry, disproportionately large beaks into the air when mama robin arrived to stuff their gullets with nosh. The mom seemed to appear every 15 minutes or so with fresh food for her clutch of babes, and I felt a tender connection with her as I recalled what it was like to attempt to feed and comfort my own helpless, hungry, and spazzing newborn in those early days.

We raptly watched the babies grow from naked, big-beaked oddities to fluffy, alert fledglings. Like my own little chick, they appeared to grow, strengthen, and change overnight. They remained such an interesting part of our day: we woke up to their lively chorus of chirps each morning; we spied on them as they napped in a downy heap during the day; we whispered sweet words and waved goodnight to them.

One afternoon I was nursing my son down for a nap in our bedroom when we were both startled by a loud flap of movement on the windowsill, punctuated instantly by the distinct shuffling sound of the nest toppling from the window’s ledge. Worried about the fate of our family of fledglings, I went outside and searched for the commotion’s source. There, ten feet or so below the window, was the toppled nest and scattered around it were four dazed and disoriented baby birds. In the canopy of tree branches above were two parent robins, hopping anxiously from branch to branch in a distressed dance of panic, calling wildly to their babies. 

This was a very hard afternoon for me. Okay, yes, I tend to be a bit anthropomorphic at times. I’ll admit it. I had a particularly intense reaction to this unexpected nest upheaval, and I was quite worried that our robin babies weren’t going to survive their too-early ejection from their twiggy refuge. With teary eyes during my son’s nap I began searching the internet to see what, if anything, I should do to help.

And it was during this reading and some reflection afterwards that I learned a little about myself as a parent.  How I should conduct myself as a member of the mothering community. Who I want to be as a parent.

Our family of robins reminded me:

Partners do uncredited work, too. In my reading I discovered that not only does the male robin help construct the nest, he also takes his share of turns feeding the chicks. So, when I saw the mother robin at the nest every 15 minutes or so? About half of those times it was the father robin. As a stay-home parent, I often feel like I do the heavy bulk of the caregiving in my household, and while I likely do most days, my husband also does his share of work here. When my son was about 8 months old, we went on vacation with our extended family, and several family members commented with awe that my husband was quite helpful, attentive, and involved with baby care. I recall thinking, “Uh, yeah. He better be! This is how we roll!” I mean, like me, he should be helpful, attentive, and involved. Still, his work deserves to be recognized, too. He deserves acknowledgment and appreciation.

Don’t assume you truly understand another mother’s needs. I had been filling a feeder near the nest with nuts and seeds for our mother robin, only to later realize that robins don’t really eat this kind of food. They thrive on worms, grubs, insects and the like. However well-intentioned and pure-hearted my “help” was, it entirely missed the mark. This is a very black and white example, but I think this idea carries over into how we interact with our fellow mothers. Sometimes our statements to each other entirely miss the mark; sometimes our “support” is not support at all. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to honestly assess our intentions before we say something. Are the things we offer as support designed to make our mother counterparts feel better?  Or to make ourselves feel better?

Model compassionate behavior for your children, even when they’re not watching or don’t have the capacity to understand it. I believe what happened to our nest was this: a parent robin arrived with food, the fledglings jumped up, and their combined weight and the grade of the sill caused the nest to flip from the shift in balance. I watched, engrossed and impressed, as the parents coaxed three of the nestlings to safety. They left the fourth–the runt–behind. I watched for four hours as it sat there alone and bewildered. I called a naturalist at our local conservation center, who explained that this fourth fledgling was likely determined by the parents to be either injured or determined to be too difficult to move, placing the rest of the family in danger. Basically, she told me they cut their losses. She also gave me a gentle lecture that concluded with, “That’s nature.” I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the poor runt alone. Sure, my toddler had hardly a clue of the implication of “That’s nature,” nor would he recall the afternoon’s events, but I thought, How would I handle this if my son was old enough to really understand this situation? And so, I pleaded for the contact number of a wildlife rehabilitator, and a few phone calls later I was bundling up our teeny bird friend and transporting him across town to a local vet’s office. It’s what I would have liked for my son to do if he were older.

These early years with my son are finite, fastly passing and precious. This happened at a point in my motherhood where I was considering with a serious heart if I should begin weaning my son. The fourth fledgling’s unintentional ouster from the nest before he was ready helped me to understand what a gift it is to be able to nurture my son through the act of nursing. It helped me to understand that what I truly wanted was for my son to leave the breast when he was ready to do so. Gently, with patience, and with respect for his needs.

 Rhianna, her husband and their 18 month old son still continue to watch birds together. They live in St. Louis, where people are absolutely crazy about their cardinals, but the bird her son most loves is the common red-breasted robin.


*Photo credits: (1) Changhai Travis, Flickr Creative Commons; (2) lincoln-log, Flickr Creative Commons; (3) timparkinson, Flickr Creative Commons; (4) Sapphireblue, Flickr Creative Commons

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