For the Birds Radio Program: October Robins
One of the great joys in fall is watching migrating flocks of robins. When they’re on the move, you can sometimes watch them flying in flocks that can number from a dozen or so or hundreds or even thousands, especially along the Lake Superior North Shore. When they’re not flying, they’re pigging out in fruit trees in large, convivial flocks, filling the air with their jolly and sociable chatter, so profoundly different from spring robins, singing to proclaim their individuality and to define and defend the borders of their separate territories.
So this week, on October 23rd, I was completely discombobulated when walking from my car to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. A noisy horde of chattering robins formed a happy but rather expected welcoming committee, but there was also one lone robin sitting high atop a tree in full spring song. It was a beautiful autumn morning, about 20 degrees with clear skies, thick frost sparkling in the morning sun and muting the autumn colors that are just past peak but still rich and glorious. Now I’ve heard robins singing on frosty mornings in March, too, but then they’re sitting in bare post-winter branches, not in an oak tree that hadn’t even begun unraveling its orange leaves.
What could that robin have been thinking? Ornithologists believe it’s the change in day length—specifically the increasing number of minutes of daylight—that triggers many spring hormonal responses, but since day length right now is comparable to that at the very beginning of March or the end of February, when robins are starting to grow twitterpated, it’s possible that the bird was simply responding to day length. It’s also possible that the sunny morning, following several gloomy, rainy days, simply made the robin feel like singing. And it’s possible that the opposite was true—that this robin was not feeling at all convivial, didn’t blend in easily with the flocks, and was singing to separate himself like an adolescent boy drawing an invisible line across bedroom and bed to claim a little private space from his little brothers.
No one knows exactly what is going on in a bird’s head while it’s singing even in spring. Does song come out as a response to an inner agitation about territorial competitors? As anxiety about not yet having a mate? As a swarthy, confident technique for attracting a mate, or holding onto her while still showing interest in the chicks next door? Or might singing birds actually be feeling the same heart-swelling joy that it’s spring and their bodies are feeling strong and virile and life is good? No mere human can know the answer to this, much less why one individual could break into song on a day when all the others were in a different behavioral mode altogether.
People are discovering more and more examples of birds being individuals, different from one another even as they share many behaviors. This robin was definitely spending his October morning in a different way than all the other robins I’ve encountered in the past few weeks here in Ithaca, doing his own thing, no matter why. When I was a teacher, one of my students gave me a bookmark that read, “Birds do not sing because they have a reason. They sing because they have a song.” That’s as good an explanation as any. Listening to that bird singing cheerily, cheerily, cheerily on a beautiful autumn morning, my brain didn’t want to focus on the ornithological underpinnings of the behavior, anyway. This was a moment not to exercise the brain but to nourish the heart.