For the Birds Radio Program: Robins
Every spring, predictable as clockwork, robins return to north country. Of course, some spent the winter up here, but in winter they’re social creatures, keeping tensions within the flock down by minimizing any possible hints about territoriality, limiting their vocalizations to call notes. Suddenly one morning we wake up to a robin’s full spring song, and it’s way more than just beautiful phrases. That first robin song of the year evokes all the springs of all the years since time began, or at least since robins did. Even though we know that spring always arrives weeks before winter takes its leave, the robin song fills us with hope—and not just some cockeyed optimistic hopefulness about tomorrow! Tomorrow! but an immediate joy in the moment, because whatever tomorrow may bring, being right now in the present of this very moment is a lovely time to sing.
A spring robin’s predilection for earthworms gives the robin a different daily rhythm from most songbirds, pretty much exactly because the early bird catches the worm. Robins hunt for worms visually, meaning they can’t find them in the dark, so instead of singing at first light, males break into song before that first light. And they sing their predawn song much more rapidly and exuberantly than the songs they produce later in the day. They sing until they have enough light to hunt for worms—that’s when they fly off for breakfast. After a filling meal, they return to singing.
After the nest is complete, a female robin must fill it with eggs. Most birds lay their eggs very early in the morning, but a robin producing eggs can’t afford to miss a single meal or take time out of that brief window after the sun comes up when worms are visible but before the sun dries the dew and heats up the ground surface, when worms retreat into their holes for the day. So female robins do their egg laying at mid-morning.
Even the early migration of robins reflects their earthworm diet—worms are especially abundant in spring when the soil is moist, and during the first spring rains when the soil is saturated they come to the surface, easy pickin’s when robins are most needing a protein fix after a winter of fruits.
That mud that the worms spend their time in also provides a vital construction material for robin nests. Males help find twigs, but females do all the building, shaping big wads of mud and grasses into a smooth and sturdy cup within which to create a whole new generation of robins. Every one of those blue eggs contains all the memories of past robins—the instructions for migrating and eating worms and fruit and building nests and for singing. So one morning every spring as long as we exist, people will wake up to an evocative melody filled with hope and beauty and the assurance that no matter what is going on in the world, no matter what the weather forecast for tomorrow, being right now in the present of this very moment is a lovely time to sing.