For the Birds Radio Program: Chuck and Sue the Robins, Part I
One of the most satisfying surprises in late spring/early summer is when a pair of robins nests close to our home. I don’t know what it is about robins that makes them such homey birds—they can be rather messy while building, and it’s not like they’re a rare and exciting species, but it’s lovely to be able to peek out your window to see a pair building a nest or a female snuggled in, incubating her eggs almost 24-7, or to hear the male singing close to the house.
Well over a decade ago, we had a pair of robins nesting outside Tommy’s bedroom—he named them Chuck and Sue, and thoroughly enjoyed watching them from day to day. We haven’t had another pair nesting right outside a window for lo these many years, until this year a pair started building on a beam supporting the front overhang on my apartment building in Ithaca. Naturally I named these two Chuck and Sue, too. They worked on the first nest attempt for several days in April, during a dry spell when mud wasn’t available, but it finally got knocked out by a gust of wind. They started again, but this time the wind knocked it out within just two days, and they moved on.
Apparently wherever they went, that nest attempt failed, too, because a couple of weeks later, back they came. This time the female made two different starts just a foot apart. She was still working on both when I set out for Duluth two weeks ago. While I was gone she finished one, laid her eggs, and was incubating when I came back. I’d have left the false attempt up, but the woman in the other apartment in my building is more fastidious and she knocked it down. She was a little concerned that Chuck and Sue were so messy—dozens of twigs and straw were strewn about our front walkway, and a few mud spatters are now dotting our building. But when their babies are raised, a hose can take care of that—a small price to pay for the gift of baby robins.
Chuck is a very tuneful boy, who spends a lot of his time right now singing. I’m savoring it while I can—once the babies hatch, he’ll be spending most of his days frantically searching for bugs and worms and stuffing them into their endlessly hungry mouths. And a couple of weeks after the babies hatch, when they fledge from the nest, he’ll stay with them for weeks more while Sue lays more eggs and starts incubating afresh. Her false attempt might have come in useful at that point—robins don’t like to reuse a nest for more than one batch of babies if they can avoid it, because bugs discover the hot little bodies and start laying their eggs in the nesting material and sometimes by boring into the babies themselves, leading to nasty parasites. Had it remained intact, that second nest would have given Sue a head start on a clean new nest for her second brood.
Spending my time in an apartment 1200 miles from home can feel strange and lonely. But robins are robins wherever you go. I’m looking forward to watching Chuck and Sue’s babies hatch and grow and fledge, and will do my best to give them a comfortable and safe environment. A place that’s good enough for robins to nest and call home is good enough for me.