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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

A Robinís Nest

April 2020

It is mid-April and the robins return. They pull worms from the garden boxes, wake me at 4:00 a.m. and sing loudly again at suppertime. When I was a child, they lived in the maple trees outside my bedroom window in New England. I went out the French doors to sit on the deck porch and watch them flit from branch to branch. Occasionally, I picked up a blue egg that had fallen from one of the robin’s nests, a four-year-old treasuring the pale blue of its shell. Some were whole, most broken. As much as possible, I tried to live like a bird. I climbed trees, sat on branches, listened to leaves rustle, watched ants crawl on bark or leaves. I looked over the roof of our four-story house and read a book glancing up occasionally to look down the valley, examine a leaf, or watch my mother walk the yard around the house calling me to do something or to know my whereabouts. I remained silent as I watched her never look up.

As a teenager, I sat in my father’s cousin’s garden at her home in Kent reading a book. She’d bring me a cup of tea, then head back to the house as I enjoyed England’s occasional sun and prolific mirage of brilliant flowers. This was my first introduction to the magpie, that vibrant, iridescent, raucous bird. He sat on the hedge and seemed to try to draw me into conversation. At the time, I thought he was just interrupting my reading. He reminded me of a fishmonger’s wife hawking mackerel and clams.

Today, thousands of miles away from those gardens of my childhood in the woods of Alaska, a robin’s nest sits on one of the beams of my studio deck. No one has disturbed this nest for three years. Each year a pair of robins comes to repair and make it home for the new clutch of eggs and hatchlings. This spring, before the magpies migrated north, one tried to sit there. I laughed at him.

Last year the robins decided to move. They built their nest on the light fixture at the house and borrowed materials from their old home. Within a couple of weeks, the new nest collapsed and they returned to the studio beam. It is early May and they are now in the business of repairing their studio nest.

I like them here. I get to watch them every day as I sit and write. They swoop in and flutter down, then off they go again. I know she has not lid any eggs yet because no one sits there day after day. The first year, they tried three nesting spots on the beam, each one nestled against the south side of a different rafter. Over the years, the other two nest attempts have disappeared, perhaps borrowed from till there were no longer any remnants.

Soon she will lay eggs and one of the two of them will sit on the nest all day and night. I read it’s just the female who sits on the eggs, but I’ve seen one come to egg-sit as the other leaves. He stays for a short time till she returns. In two weeks, the eggs hatch and both are responsible for the care and feeding of the hatchlings. I can see their little beaks open wide and as they grow bigger, their heads become visible from below.

I hear they don’t mate again the next year, but which robin is it that knows this nest is available? Who finds it every year?

Ah, I wrote this last summer. It is now spring and perhaps a late one. It’s May 3 and there are no dandelions yet. I call them spring’s first flower with their intense yellow blossoms. The robin’s nest fell down last year. They will need to build a new one, if they nest where I can observe them daily.

I know it’s spring though. Sandhill cranes are landing in town by the hundreds, a pause on their way to their northern nesting grounds. I watched the first ones of the season fly over our house in the Oregon Outback 1,500 miles south of here. Are they the same ones that arrive in Southeast Alaska two months later? White fronted geese also stop by for their respite on their migration north. They are confused this year. There is a building going up in their usual landing spot. The human community center has taken over the birds’ community center. This year they did a flyby and then showed up at the church a quarter mile to the east. They’ve taken up grass lodgings at the neighbors to the west and north. They fly low or walk across the main road, halting traffic. We are patient with our wildlife from bears to birds to whales…they have the right of way. After all they’ve been here a lot longer than we have. We are temporary residents in their territory.

When a person buys a piece of land to raise cattle or other animals, when we buy land to build a house on, we are paying a rental fee, albeit one for a long or short term. We do not own the land. We cannot take it with us as we can a chair or a bed, a box of dishes, or the car. No, we are paying for the privilege of living there for as long as we choose. We are paying for the privilege of telling someone they can or cannot come to our land. True, the land where I live, the land of Gustavus and Glacier Bay National Park is new. It was covered by ice until the mid-1700s. Since then, though, birds, bears, wolves, voles, shrews and other large and small animals have wandered these dry and wetlands.

This land belonged to the planet and animals long before we arrived. It’s probable that birds lived on the planet 150 million years ago. This earth of North America belonged to ice and animals in past millennia, then to the Natives 15,000 years ago. Those of European ancestry began to settle here five hundred years ago. We’re the newcomers.

The birds we know today began to evolve about 63 million years ago when the dinosaurs died out. Gone today, though, are the days when birds migrated by the millions and darkened the sky.

I look up and the spot is empty. I don’t think the robins will nest on my studio beams this spring. I shall miss seeing and observing them every day as they build, lay eggs, nurture their young, and then fledge them. I’ll have to look elsewhere for their nests, ever conscious of our changing planet.

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