For the Birds Radio Program: Fascinating Robin Story
When my daughter was in kindergarten, her teacher gave the students a phonics sheet with 20 or so pictures of common, everyday things; the kids were supposed to write the starting letter for each. Katie got all but one correct. On that one, the kids were supposed to write a B for bird; two or three knew it was a robin and wrote an R, which was also correct. Despite getting all the others right, Katie had written an A for that one. When returning the papers, the teacher asked Katie what she thought it was, and my 5-year-old answered simply, “It’s an American Robin.”
Whether we call it a robin or an American Robin, this familiar backyard bird of almost the entire continental United States and Canada engages both our attention and our affection—well, unless it’s a territorial bird bashing itself against its reflection in our window or a mated pair who built a nest on our porch light and goes ballistic every time we use the front door. I’ve heard about a lot of those encounters over the years, but I’ve heard even more stories about delightfully friendly interactions people have had with robins, virtually always involving earthworms.
When gardeners dig, robins watch. So I’ve heard from many, many people filled with delight about robins approaching them, but never before this week have I heard of a robin returning the favor. Boston University Professor Perry Donham posted this fascinating story on an online community we belong to, and gave me permission to share it:
The robins in our yard (near Providence, Rhode Island) are pretty tame, and this weekend one of them has been sitting on a fence watching me dig out and install three raised beds. Every time I’d find a nice grub I’d toss it into a little dish of dirt under a nearby apple tree, and Mrs. Robin would hop over, grab a grub, and fly off to wherever, only to return ten or fifteen minutes later, back on the fence. She probably got a dozen grubs and a worm or two over two days.
Yesterday I was walking out around dusk to the compost pile, and a robin started hopping toward me. I stopped, and she plucked a worm out of the ground, looked at me for a long moment, put the worm down, and backed away.
I thought she was nervous about me being there, so I just stood quietly, waiting. Mrs. Robin hopped forward, picked the worm up, looked at me for a long moment, put it down, and backed away.
It was obvious that she was giving the worm to me. I stepped forward, picked it up, thanked her, and walked on to the compost. When I came back, I dropped it in the dish under the apple tree.
It’s easy to anthropomorphize, but this seemed really obvious. I know crows will befriend humans. Maybe robins do, too?
A few years ago, an extraordinary case of crows giving a little girl presents went viral on social media, but that was exceptional even for birds who clearly recognize and approach people who’ve been feeding them for a long time. A couple of crows and Blue Jays fly to my yard when I make a particular whistle, knowing I’m about to put out peanuts. The jays have returned the favor by sometimes letting me photograph them for a minute or two before I put the peanuts down for them.
The crows sit in the tree until I go into the house, and they fly away if I point a camera toward them. This is at least the fourth year that one pair has been getting food from me so I know they recognize me, but the only way I’ve been able to photograph them is to hurry into the house to an already-open window, my camera at the ready.
But I also know from firsthand experience that some birds DO give humans presents, such as the raven in Port Wing, Wisconsin, who inexplicably dropped my wristwatch at my feet the day after I lost it. Nothing close to that has happened to me even once in the forty years since.
Robins don’t strike us as intelligent in the way that corvids do, but that is probably a function of our egotistical belief in the kinds of intelligence tests that we humans excel at. And generosity and a sense of reciprocity are impulses not specifically associated with intelligence, anyway. Robins are homey, lovable birds, and Perry’s story gives me yet one more reason to appreciate them.