For the Birds Radio Program: Robins

Original Air Date: Nov. 16, 1992

When a “For the Birds” listener sent Laura a story about a robin, she knew right off that this guy was for the birds. (3:52)

Audio missing


Last week I received a jolly letter from George Ellis of Eagle River, Wisconsin. Mr. Ellis tells of the time one August when the woman and toddler next door brought him a baby robin that they had found. Mr. Ellis writes:

He was a very young bird, only partially feathered, and too young to be out of the nest. They had no idea where the nest was.

It was starting to get dark, so Mr. Ellis, who has obviously had experience with little birds, had to put the bird in a cardboard box for the night, and bought some nightcrawlers for food. He fed the bird a couple of times during the night.

Mr. Ellis, who knew that the best place for a baby bird was with its mother, searched for the nest the next morning, and found it in the top of a 20-foot maple. It’s pretty tricky to get a baby bird back into a set-up like that, so he set the box with the baby on the sidewalk under the nest, and dumped out a helping of nightcrawlers. The mother immediately started feeding the baby. Mother birds recognize their babies by sight and voice, not smell, just like human mothers. It’s always okay to handle a baby bird to get it near its mother or back in the nest.

The mother fed and cared for her babies all day—the ones in the nest in the tree and this one in a box on the sidewalk.

Mr. Ellis continues:

That night, fearing the neighborhood cats, I took the box in and took over night duty. As I remember, this arrangement lasted a few days. Of course with 24-hour feeding, he grew fast.

One day he was gone, and I knew the robins had a few kids in the low cedars and bushes around the house. Two or three days passed.

Then I was home alone one day, sitting in the backyard reading, when Mother Robin landed in the apple tree right over my head. She had a bill full of ripe honeysuckle berries and cried that plaintive, soft cry they can give. She flew down closer and kept it up. I moved to the picnic table, annoyed. She followed and sat on the maple branch right over my head, crying.

Mr. Ellis deduced that the baby robin had to be around there somewhere, so he got his well-trained hunting dogs and searched, without luck. The mother bird kept crying over him, and he couldn’t help her, so he finally went into the house. She spied him through the kitchen window and suddenly she flew to the open window and started crying again. Mr. Ellis wondered “What in the world does she think I can do?” He continues:

Then it occurred to me that our exhaust fan had its outside vent in a type of window well under the deck. I called my dog and sent him under the deck with fetch instructions. The instant he peered into the window well I knew where the bird was. I crawled under and retrieved it myself, put it in the cedar hedge on the south side of the house, and Mother Robin took it from there.

Mr. Ellis never saw them again that summer, but writes that:

Early next spring there was a beautiful male robin in the cedar hedge right in front of the kitchen sink window. There was snow on the ground, so I took some raisins out and put them on the clear ground next to the house. He staye,d and I’m sure he was the one who returned every year for three or four years, until last year. Each year, this male robin would appear very early, and sit in the cedar looking into the house and calling till the raisins were brought out. Last spring he didn’t show up, and we were very sad. Same bird? I’d like to think so.

It’s very likely that the little bird Mr. Ellis saved twice came back year after year. A robin may have just a bird brain, but it has a fine memory of geographical location, and it also has a heart.