Because I’ve recently edited my forthcoming book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, and because robins (the same robins?) are currently building a nest in the grapevine just beyond my study window, I’d like to share this passage from “Thuja plicata: Nest Boxes”, one section of my book. The lovely bit at the end of the second-to-last paragraph is from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.
I’ve been watching robins this year. One pair built its nest on the downspout of our print shop, a short distance from the house. From the kitchen or the porch, we could see the progress of the nest and then the familiar sight of the female perched on it. There were robins in the same place last year and that couple raised two broods. I love peering out, with binoculars for the best view, to see the patient bird incubating her eggs, rising to perch on the side of the nest to turn the eggs, then taking a short break to find a meal for herself while her mate stays near to protect the nest. It takes about two weeks for the eggs to hatch, and then the mother robin never seems to rest, darting out and back to bring worms and insects to the increasingly active brood.
Sometimes all I can see are three beaks open to the air. And then three gangly young birds carousing in the small space and calling for more food. It only takes two weeks for them to grow to adolescence and leave the nest, each perched on its woven precipice and then soaring out into the world.
Once we were lucky enough to see the last of the clutch leave, a sweet moment as the bird leaned forward eagerly while a whole gaggle of robins called and flapped from a nearby cedar. Finally it just . . . flew. Imagine just knowing how! Just pushing off from the nest and flying, something many of us dream of doing. I’ve read that the male robins continue to feed the offspring for two weeks after they’ve left the nest and then they’re on their own. Depending on the time of the season, the female will be nesting again, prepared for the hours of waiting for her eggs to hatch; then willing to feed the rapidly growing chicks for the two weeks it takes them to mature.
This year, the downspout couple raised one family and then either they disappeared or else they are the same birds who built on the other side of the house, on an elbow of wisteria just outside my study window. I watched this nest from my desk, looking up from my work as I’d hear a rustle — the mother returning with food for the three young. After the babies finally left, the mother spent some time rejuvenating the nest; she brought fresh moss, fresh grass; and I thought how wise she was to have chosen the site in the first place. The wisteria leaves make a shady canopy over the southwest facing nest. But she didn’t stay, perhaps deterred by John who was building new steps for a reconstructed sundeck nearby. (He’d put off this project until the young had flown.)
Reading about robin mortality rates, I was surprised to find out that only 25 percent of robins survive until early November of their first year. Life expectancy is two years. The hard work of the industrious parents, raising up to three clutches a season, is not well-rewarded. Yet robins seem ubiquitous. Driving along the highway in spring, one sees so many of them at the roadside, flying up in challenge as the car approaches. (This rash bravado might be the very thing that limits their survival rates, or at least for those 25 percent who survive past November. In spring and early summer, I often see dead robins on the side of the highway, though the ravens and vultures make short work of the carcasses.)
And there are predators. One night, before the wisteria family had flown, we were awakened by two barred owls very near the house. I know they are capable of taking robin eggs and chicks. For about two hours they chorused back and forth to each other, their eight-note call — Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all? — with its drawn-out final quavery note becoming shorter, more urgent: four notes. And finally just a long descending throb, right by our bedroom window. I wondered if the parent owls were perhaps teaching their offspring to hunt, and if nesting birds near our house might be the prey.
So now it’s back to the downspout and the mother is on that nest as I write. I loved watching her prepare the nest back in April. There had been one there in the past and I know that sometimes robins simply build on top of an old one but that earlier nest had fallen, a perfect construction of woven twigs and moss, held together with mud, and then lined with grass. The new nest took a few days to build and, at the end, the bird crouched in it and plumped out her body, turning as she did so. This formed a cup to the dimensions of her body. She carried wisps of grass to it and then I think she laid her eggs, one a day for three days.
This time around — it’s early July — she simply reoccupied the nest that she had used in April, bringing a little fresh grass for her new family. If we get too near, she glides out and is back again before we know it. I love to hear her mate singing morning, noon, and night, the long rising and falling notes clear and bright.
Of course by now you will know that I am talking about my own family — three children raised in our homemade house, nurtured and loved, and coaxed easily from the nest with every hope for their long survival. Oh, and their return! “So there is also an alas in this song of tenderness. If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.”
Think of those chicks crowded in that bowl of moss and mud, jostling and agitating for the food from their mother’s beak. That first glide from the nest into thin air, the vast blue yonder, must’ve been heaven. Yet for days after, I see the mottled immature robins perched in the cedars near our house, uncertain about the future, perhaps, and reluctant to leave the actual palace on its elbow of wisteria or downspout.