Raising Robins

by Beverly Offen
One warm spring evening, I opened a living room window.  On the windowsill was a bird’s nest, cradling four small blue eggs. I’m no bird expert, but those little blue eggs were clear evidence that this was a robins’ nest.

What could those robins have been thinking! They’d built their nest on our five-inch-wide sill, tucked into the corner formed by the concrete windowsill and the narrow edge of an adjoining brick wall. I looked down; it was a long, long way from our second-floor condo to the graveled path below. The nest was exposed to the wind, which often whipped around our building.

Of course, the robins’ nest was now our nest—they had moved into, or at least onto, our condo unit, and so they were clearly our robins, our eggs, and our nest.  I called to my husband who was in the kitchen. “Ron,” I said, “there’s a robin’s nest on the windowsill. It’s going to blow off. The eggs will be smashed. We have to do something.”

Ron checked out the situation. “Well,” he said, “robins usually build their nests in trees, and those nests don’t blow off. Probably robins use something sticky when they build their nests. It won’t blow off the windowsill.”

He had a point.

“But what about Mom Robin? She’s supposed to be sitting on those eggs.”

“Sweetie,” my husband said, walking away, “birds are flighty. Get back from the window. You’re probably scaring her off.”

Maybe he was right. I’d give Mom Robin a chance. But right now, I needed facts. I Googled “Robins” and found the perfect website. It was designed for robin amateurs, probably for children. I learned that the parents, mostly Mom but with Dad occasionally helping out, would be sitting on the eggs for about two weeks; the eggs would hatch at about the same time; the babies would mature at the same rate, again in about two weeks. Other birds space their offspring’s hatching and maturing times, but robins apparently want to get it over as quickly as possible.

This made sense to me. Mom and Dad Robin could focus on their babies for a month and then forget all about babies for another eleven months. It seemed to be a more efficient timetable for rearing children than the way human parents do it.

I went back to the living room window. Mom Robin had returned. She was tumbling the eggs about—an essential pre-hatch activity I’d learned about from my Googled website. Then Mom Robin sat on the eggs, spreading her feathers over the nest to keep the eggs warm. I had a hatching day estimate, based on first sighting the eggs, and one morning, right on schedule, the nest was filled with pulsating baby robin protoplasm. But again, Mom Robin was nowhere to be seen. I called Ron, and we stood by the window, speaking softly so that we wouldn’t disturb the babies.

“We have babies!” I whispered to Ron. “We have responsibilities. Where’s Mom Robin? Maybe these are her first babies. Maybe she doesn’t know what to do.”

Ron had been a parent to four children, and I could tell he wasn’t much interested in the baby robins. But he had some quirky interests of his own, and he didn’t stop me from taking off on my personal journey into parenthood.

I’d never had children. I had an unhappy childhood, and I didn’t want to subject a child to my experiences. Then, in my late thirties, when I was married to my first husband, I began to think about becoming a mother. But when I suggested it to my husband, he said that if I had a baby it would be mine alone, and he would not take on any responsibilities. Suddenly becoming a parent, even of baby robins, reminded me of the questions I had asked myself many years ago. Would I know how to be a good mother to a baby? Would I tire of the daily care the baby required? How would I pay for the care that the baby would need when I was at work?

Now, in my sixties, I sometimes imagined the child I might have had.  I knew that it would have been a girl, and that I would have named her Anne. I would have loved her. She would have liked the baby robins.

I was still standing, motionless in front of the window, when Ron pulled me away. “You’ve got to leave them alone. The parents aren’t going to come back while you’re standing here.” I left reluctantly, and the parents soon returned.

I used to sleep late, but now I began getting up early, anxious to check on the nursery. I approached the nest like a private eye, slipping quietly along the living room wall until I reached the window, where I stood, just hidden from the robins’ view. I monitored the crucial feeding of the baby robins, a sporadic activity that occurred all day long. The babies waited to be fed, beaks gaping open. Dad Robin, and less often Mom, flew up and disgorged predigested worms into their waiting beaks. Sometimes the worms were alive and writhing in the parents’ beaks. Usually only one or two of the babies were fed on each rescue mission, but, whether recently fed or not, all were constantly pleading for food. I worried that Dad Robin might be favoring the more demanding babies at the expense of the less assertive ones.

Then, at this critical moment, we took a long-planned trip and were away for several days. I was forced to abandon the baby robins. I worried: “Would my babies be all right? Would the parents remember to feed them? What if there was a thunderstorm and it flooded the robins’ nest?”

When we returned, I dropped my bag just inside the door and rushed over to check on the nest. All seemed to be well, and I sighed with relief. But then I counted. There were only three babies. One of my babies was missing! I looked down at the ground below but saw nothing. Had the nest become overcrowded? Did Dad Robin stop feeding the smallest baby? Had a girl robin been sacrificed for the benefit of the boys? If I’d been home, could I have saved the baby?  

Probably not. Maybe it was better that we’d been gone.

But then I thought of my friend, Donna, who’d had two miscarriages and still mourned her lost children. Did forgetting about the lost baby robin mean I would have been a bad mother?

The next morning, there was a notice on our bulletin board, giving the date of the upcoming washing of our windows. I had never paid much attention to this regular event. But now I imagined the powerful hoses of the window washers dislodging the robins’ nest and sending my babies plunging to their death. Certainly Mom and Dad Robin would be so terrified by the noise of the window washers’ clanking steel ladders that they’d fly away and never return. I talked to our condo president; I called our management company; I explained my anxieties.

“It’s the babies,” I said. “The baby robins will be killed.”

“Yes, yes,” they said. “We’ll tell the window washers.”

I didn’t trust them. I marshaled a window-washer defense.  For starters, I wrote “Don’t Wash” on sheets of yellow construction paper and taped the sheets to our living room windows.

The dreaded window-washing morning arrived. Of course, I was up early. I didn’t know on which side of the building the washers would begin washing. But our unit was in the middle, and I knew I’d hear them approaching as they washed the windows near to ours. I sent Ron downstairs in search of the workmen. Ron returned and said that he’d found the crew boss and told him not to wash our windows or the windows of the unit above ours. (I had convinced Ron that our upstairs neighbor, a single man who was rarely at home, wouldn’t notice that his windows had not been washed.)

Soon, in the distance, I could hear the windows washers talking and their ladders banging loudly against the brick walls. The noise was terrific. Mom and Dad Robin took off. I stood at the window, watching over my babies. Finally the washers began to wash the windows of the unit next to ours. “We’re next,” I told Ron. “Go down and remind them not to wash our windows.”

When Ron returned, he said that the crew boss wasn’t there, but he had talked to the window washers. “That guy never told them not to wash our windows! The washers didn’t speak much English, but they could understand me. They won’t wash our windows.”

The washers finished washing the windows next to ours. We watched as they moved their ladders past our windows. I hugged Ron. “We saved them!” I said breathlessly. “You saved them. Thank you. Oh, thank you!”

Then I went back to check on my babies. They sat up, beaks open and waiting. The parents had been gone for hours. My robin website said that baby robins were fed thirty to forty times a day. How long could my babies live without food? Should I go in search of worms under the nearby trees? Maybe I could feed the babies by dangling a worm from my eyebrow tweezers. I was already looking for my rubber rain boots when Ron put his hands on my shoulders and sat me down in a chair. “You’re being silly. The babies don’t get fed all night. You are not tramping around in the mud looking for worms! Just leave them alone; the parents will be back.”

He was treating me like a child, but I gave in. “Okay. Maybe you’re right.” I didn’t know if I believed what I’d said, but it was what I wanted to believe.

The window washers finally finished washing, and, near dusk, Mom and Dad Robin returned. The family was fed and reunited.

My babies were now nearly grown, and I began inviting friends and neighbors over to see them. “We’ve been watching over them,” I told everyone. “We saved them from the window washers! They’re getting bigger every day!”

But our visitors took only a quick look at the nest and at my babies. They didn’t realize how special these babies were. They just wanted to tell stories about their robin experiences..

Dad Robin had never lived in the nest. He worked during the day and spent his nights in one of the nearby trees. One day I noticed that Mom Robin had also moved out. Dad and Mom Robin still brought food regularly. But the fluffy down that had once covered the baby robins had been replaced with feathers, a sure sign that they would soon be able to fly. My responsibility for them would end. What would I do when my babies didn’t need me? Would my days become boring and pointless? Of course, I would be spared the duty of standing guard for several hours a day, making sure that Mom and Dad Robin were fulfilling their feeding responsibilities.

There was that.

Life in the nest now speeded up. The baby robins discovered that they had wings, and they learned how to flap their wings. Then they found that they had legs, and they began to stand up, awkwardly practicing to be adults. Soon they learned to stand and flap at the same time. There was room enough for only one baby to execute the stand/flap maneuver, and they took turns practicing in the center of the nest. How would they have managed if Baby Number Four had survived? My three babies nearly overflowed the nest.

One morning, the baby robins began jumping onto the side of the nest and peering down at the ground.  At first, they quickly jumped back to the safety of home. But each time Mom or Dad Robin arrived with a worm snack, my babies watched with interest as the parent flew off.

The following day was busy, with my babies jumping on and off the edge of the nest and engaging in vigorous displacement preening. I knew how they felt because it was how I felt—nervous and worried. I could tell that my babies weren’t paying any attention to me, and I no longer tried to stay out of their sight. I began talking to them and giving them advice. “Take your time,” I said. “Don’t try it before you’re ready. You don’t want to make a mistake and get hurt.” I wasn’t sure that they were listening to me, but my babies stayed put. I knew it wouldn’t be for long.  

The next morning I raced over to the window. One of my babies was gone! I had missed his great leap into space. I had to be there for the other two. I got my coffee and settled down, giving occasional advice and encouragement. The activity in the nest was fierce. Stand/jump/flap/preen. Stand/jump/flap/preen. Suddenly I saw dark wings spread against the trees. Another of my babies was gone from the nest. He reached a nearby branch and perched there. He flew to another branch. He would be a success in life.

Only one baby robin was left. “Edgar,” I said, suddenly knowing that his name was Edgar, “it’s your turn. I’m sure you can do it. You don’t want to spend tonight all alone in the nest.”

But Edgar hesitated. He perched on the edge of the nest that was nestled in the safe corner against the wall. He flapped his wings tentatively. Occasionally he ventured out near the runway at the front of the nest, but he spent that time preening himself. Regularly he sat down in the center of the nest. But he kept preening himself, trying to build up his self-confidence. This might be my last chance to help him. “I know what it’s like, Edgar,” I said. “Some things are really scary the first time. Just take it easy.”

Dad Robin visited twice, both times with big struggling worms. Edgar gobbled them down.

It was Saturday, and we were having friends for dinner at 6:00. I had planned the dinner but had barely begun to prepare the food. I fidgeted. “Please, Edgar, just do it. You’re a big boy now. I know you can fly. Don’t be afraid.” At last, I had to abandon my post. “Stay where you are, Edgar. I’ll be back. Everything will be okay.”

I set the table, put the wine in the fridge, chopped and prepped the food. Two hours later, I was finally done. I raced back to the window to check on Edgar. He was gone. The nest was empty save for a remaining ball of poop. All my babies were gone.

I thought I would be sad. But I was elated. I was the Great Mom Robin! Three of my babies had made it.

Every robin I saw in our trees would forever be my Edgar.
Beverly Offen grew up on a small farm in a small Illinois town. She is a traditionalist, a feminist, a frugal consumer, and an irreligious realistic moralist. She has a certificate in Creative Nonfiction from the U. of Chicago, Graham School. She has been published in Still Crazy, Great Lakes Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Persimmon Tree, and other small magazines.

© 2015, Beverly Offen