A pair of robins decided to build their nest in my honeysuckle archway trellis. Actually, the female built it, but Mr. and Mrs. Robin look identical to me.
Long before I noticed the nest in mid-April, the pair of robins had been very busy. After overwintering with a large, nomadic flock, they split up and moved to the ground in search of bugs and earthworms and maybe some rotting fruit. They met and fell in love…or decided that they could make a go of it. Since robins only pair up for a single breeding season, they don’t have to be too particular. Mrs. Robin chose the location for her nest and her mate supplied her with twigs. She built the 6 inch diameter, round nest and lined it with feathers and anything that she could find to make it warm and comfortable for her brood.
She laid each of the three blue eggs on consecutive days and after she finished, and all had been laid; she commenced incubating them with her body and rotating them several times a day.
I wouldn’t have noticed all of their work, except that the arch trellis is right next to my back door and every time I went outside Mrs. Robin would “buzz” me.
My trellis serves as the entrance to a square brick patio that abuts to my house and is ringed with hosta, ferns, woodland flowers, a fountain for water, and my lawn. The honeysuckle was not yet in bloom when they chose their site, but the small, oval, bright green leaves sheltered it so well that the nest would have probably remained hidden, had she not brushed me every time I walked out the door. My dogs were also oblivious to her hard work.
In mid-April I discovered the three tiny eggs that she was keeping warm. Her mate was usually close by on the fence, just watching. He probably didn’t sit on the eggs often, since male robins rarely do, but I cannot tell them apart, so I can’t say for sure.
Over the next 10 days, she sat patiently, quietly, her back to me. And each day I climbed up on the chair to see if they had hatched. She refused to make eye contact.
Within 10 days her chicks emerged from their beautifully colored eggs. I wanted to save a shell, but Mrs. Robin devoured them all before I could take one. Her naked, reddish, fleshy, and blind newborn chicks were surprisingly quiet and although most moms leave the nest and tend to their newborn’s needs from a tree branch, Mrs. Robin chose to stay and keep them warm and dry. It was a cold, wet season.
Soon enough, Mr. Robin appeared, from his beak a wiggling earthworm. Mrs. Robin would search for her own earthworms, plentiful and tantalizing in the cold wet soil. While she was searching, he would feed them. They followed me around the garden because after I finished many earthworms became available for easy plucking. But they didn’t like me watching them feeding their whisper-silent, now downy chicks.
So we developed a code of sorts. When I saw both of them on the fence or garage roof with a wiggling morsel hanging from their beaks, I would go inside for an hour and let them feed their offspring without interference.
I delighted in watching those ugly, gawky, fleshy newborns grow their feathers, but they always looked scraggly. No one in the robin family had any interest in me and pretended not to see me when I peered in. And so it went for the next two weeks.
As you can tell from the title, it didn’t end well. After two weeks, I accidentally bumped the trellis while I was mowing, and one frightened, speckled fledgling jumped out of the nest and briskly hopped to the woodland underbrush. I tried to retrieve him, but he was well camouflaged. Two days later, while trimming the honeysuckle whose coral-colored, elongated blossoms had now enveloped the archway, both of the remaining fledglings hopped out in a panic heading in different directions, both Mr. and Mrs. Robin buzzed me for my misbehavior.
I tried to catch one with a towel and put him back, but both were too fast. Now there was an empty nest with very angry birds flying around it. Over the next week, I have continued to dig up earthworms and drop them where the young ones fled; but I have not seen any, nor a carcass.
I have since discovered that robins continue to feed their offspring even after they have abandoned the nest. Mr. Robin keeps them protected on a tree branch while the parents continue to feed them. So, I hope that Mr. and Mrs. Robin know where their teenagers are and are continuing to nurture and feed them.
It turns out that while robins are prolific breeders, their young chicks have a high mortality rate. Hopefully Mr. and Mrs. Robin will come back to lay their second set of eggs. I promise to do better next time.
Sadly, only 40% of their fledglings make it to adulthood.
Now we know why.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.