The first baby robin was already dead when I found it on the wet ground early in the cool, damp morning.
I had seen the momma robin in her nest high up in the pear tree outside the kitchen window, ill-formed from numerous botched prunings. The foliage is thick in the middle but the majority of the canopy has been sheared away. She would come in and out of view on breezy days as the minimal outer branches swayed around her. She almost appeared to be bobbing up and down in the movement like she was in a small boat on a wavy lake. I had wondered about her and her nest, but acknowledged that a robin’s wisdom is impenetrable to me.
I was surprised by how far the baby was from the nest. It was on the ground at least 10 feet away under a completely different tree. The week had been full of thunderstorms with heavy downpours and steady winds. I assumed the baby had been blown from the nest, although I suppose it was also possible it had fallen and been swept along on or near the ground.
When I found the second baby robin, I began to get worried.
I found the baby on the ground directly below the nest. It had almost no feathers, its eyes were closed and it huddled motionless on the ground. It was a nestling: a baby too young to leave the nest. They lack mobility or the ability to vocalize. But if you touch a nestling it will thrust its head up and open its mouth in a wide maw to receive food for a second or two before retracting it back into its huddled position. I had no idea of what to do. After reading numerous articles online expressing a wide range of opinions of whether or not to rescue a baby bird, I had little guidance to go on. The best option is to return the baby to the nest, but the nest was far too high for that. I alternately worried the baby would starve, dehydrate or die of exposure to either the cold ground or too much sun. I watched and fretted and watched some more. The robins appeared to be tending to the baby throughout the day. I discouraged Otto from going near the area easily as he seemed unconcerned with the bird. I left it alone until nightfall and then built a little nest of Kleenex in a tissue box and tucked the baby in. I left its makeshift nest on the ground and covered it with a large box to prevent predators from finding it. I assumed the baby wouldn’t make it through the night without its parents to tend to it.
In the morning, I found the baby alive. It had defecated in the tissue, which I took to be a good sign. I gently removed the soiled tissue (wide maw opening towards me) and replaced it with clean, then set the tissue box where I thought the robins would find it. I watched anxiously out the window, but the robins didn’t seem to be interested in investigating the box. I would go out and pull more and more of the tissue away (wide maw opening each time) in hopes the robin would see the baby and continue feeding it. I worried the baby would starve. And I also worried that if I removed the baby from the “nest” that it would die of exposure. After a couple of hours of fretful viewing out the kitchen window, I became increasingly convinced that the robins couldn’t find the baby. Its hopes for survival seemed equally bad no matter what I did, but starvation seemed slightly more certain if the parents couldn’t find it to feed it. I thought if it could survive one more day (as it had the previous) I would box it up again at night and perhaps we could all work in some unspoken cooperative effort toward saving this baby. So I made the grim decision to put the baby back on the ground, open to the elements, but hopefully in view of its parents.
The baby huddled on the ground, eyes closed, motionless. I looked at it feeling sickened by my callous cruelty. Then I went inside to resume viewing through the window.
The robins strutted around in the vicinity of the baby, digging worms and then strutting on out of view. It was hard to tell if they recognized the baby or were tending to it. Yesterday they had clearly been feeding it. Today they seemed to be wandering in a less directed fashion once they had acquired food. I was helpless to intervene further. I knew there was nothing I could do. I told myself they were probably feeding it in the times I wasn’t looking out the window (which were ground increasingly less frequent, by the way) and that I had to let go of the idea that I could significantly alter the course of the baby’s life.
I was looking out the window when the baby robin died late in the afternoon.
I know it was the moment the baby died because its whole body convulsed and pitched the baby head first into the ground. It was as gruesome and awful as it sounds. I was unprepared for this cold and grisly ending, and promptly started to cry in the wake of this realization of how life just disappears. Death from starvation and exposure is not a painless drift into an indefinite sleep. It is a struggle and a breaking.
What do we do when confronted with suffering we can’t ameliorate? Do we intervene with only incremental efforts even if we know the outcome is irrevocable? Are our good intentions enough? Is it meaningful and relevant simply to care? Does it matter that we can’t change the course of events, if we can bring some respite, even in minor degrees, from discomfort and distress? Does it matter if the recipient recognizes us as a friend or protector? It is easy and not easy to turn away…easy and not easy to try and do something. No effort feels like enough and yet simultaneously all efforts seem futile.
I put the baby back in the nest of tissue in the small box, covered it, and threw it away.
I turned to go inside and saw Otto staring intently into the hedge along our screened back porch. Staring. Locked gaze on something in the hedge…
The command was like the untoward release of a spring, and in the exact opposite motion of what I commanded him to do I saw Otto lunge forward with a warning snap of the jaw and I heard a shrieking squawk. There on the ground was a fledgling robin…eyes wide open, covered in feathers, and squawking its alarm.
No sooner had the squawk left the baby’s throat, then the parent robins began shrieking and swooping towards Otto and the fledgling. Something primal in Otto’s brain snapped and he went into a frenzy of barking and chasing the parent robins. He would not respond to any command and ducked every effort of mine to catch him. He alternated between chasing the parents and rushing back towards the fledgling which had started bizarre wobbling trek out of the protection of the hedge into the lawn. The few minutes it took me to get him into the house seemed interminable. Panting and shaking, I looked out the kitchen window. The parents were still calling the alarm and the baby continued to wobble across the yard. At one point, I went out to check on it and found it in the middle of the lawn. The parents squawked angrily at my scrutiny. I went back in the house and the parents continued to call the fledgling until well after dark.
When I went outside in the morning, the robin’s entire broken nest was on the ground where it had finally fallen from the tree.
I searched but could find no other baby robins. Nor could I find the fledgling. I kept Otto leashed but felt unsettled not knowing where the fledgling was. I went back inside and resumed my watch at the window. I hoped I could catch the parents feeding it and determine its location. My strategy worked. By mid-morning I witnessed the parents going over to a patch of long grass and a little robin head thrust itself out with a wide maw for food. I knew where the fledgling was and I had a plan.
I emptied out a hanging planter of its plants and most of its soil and placed the robin’s nest in the bottom. I then found the fledgling and placed it in the nest in the planter and set it on the ground where the baby had been hiding. I went back in the house and waited for the parents to find and feed it. They figured out the new situation quickly and with this small success I felt by the end of the day that I could hang the planter in a new tree and the parents could continue to card for this fledgling in this new location. With great relief, the parents were able to adapt to this new situation for their offspring and within a few days the fledgling and parents were gone. I wouldn’t have guessed the fledgling was big enough to fly, but as I said before, the robin’s wisdom is impenetrable to me.
I would be leading my readers amiss to not acknowledge that at the end of this I felt more prepared to answer some of the hypothetical questions above.
If you can return the baby robin to the nest, do that. When something catastrophic happens, it is best to be back home with family that can take care of you.
If you can’t return the baby to the nest, get the baby off the ground into something nest-like. We all do better when we don’t sleep on the ground and we have some structured material to keep us warm and safe.
If the baby is too young to survive without parental attention for long, don’t worry and overthink. Do the second option and get the baby off the ground, warm and safe. Maybe the parents will find it and maybe they won’t. Even if that is all you can do, it is enough. It is something. It is more than nothing. And no matter how bad or sad the ending, it might just be a little less bad and a little less sad because you expressed your care and took action.
“I showed that lawn tender feelings I should have saved for my family.” Hank Hill (King of the Hill) lamenting the destruction of his lawn by moles.
Before we moved, I took pictures of every plant in my yard in Portland.
Not just pictures of the yard as a whole (although I have those too), but pictures of each individual plant. Luckily it was still early spring so a significant number of perennials hadn’t emerged. Otherwise I would have had easily two or three times the number of pictures.
I had always worked in the yard and “gardened” as such, and then in the last three years had become committed to the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program sponsored by the Audobon Society of Portland. The program certified neighborhood yards meeting certain requirements of native plantings, stormwater management, and wildlife habitat (food, water, and shelter sources). I had dug up the majority of the lawn on the property, planted well over 100 plants, and laid many yards of chip in paths and borders. The yard was Gold certified by the time I left, and I counted over 40 different native species of plant between my front and back yard. I had a bird bath and several feeders, a brush pile, a mason bee block, and bird roosting boxes. Over 15 species of bird had been sighted in the yard and several species of bees. It was right at the point where the majority of planting was done and everything was beginning to expand and fill in. It had a beauty in both its appearance and its functionality.
Portland has a wide variety of yard-scapes, from simple lawn plus hedge, to lush overgrown jungles full of hydrangea, rhododendron, wisteria and lilac, to dry landscapes of chip and decorative grasses. My yard was a three year exercise in balance: evergreen and color, sun and shade, thick hedgerow and open space, with all the canopy levels represented. Lots of structure and a little wildness, it looked mostly planned with spots of spontaneity, personal yet appealing. It was astounding how much habitat could be built into one urban yard.
The yard at my new house can be characterized by what I note appears to be a city-wide standard of appropriate landscaping: lawn plus sculpted hedge. A few trees included. And the lawn description is generous. The front yard I would describe as lawn plus dandelion farm plus hedge. (I pulled enough dandelions to fill two large yard debris bags.) The back yard is about six different invasive ground-covers that have been mowed to look like lawn, plus dandelions plus hedge. (Oh, and there is that big patch of poison ivy that my husband found accidentally and much to his dismay.)
I am grateful in a way, that the back yard isn’t full of lush lawn. Then I don’t have to feel bad about digging it up. Its all just weed and not worth saving. All I have to do is get to work.
Get to work…again. Starting over from scratch. New yard, new native plants to learn about, new plans…
I should be excited. A blank canvas for me to fill in with my own vision.
Wait, should I be excited? Because I’m not excited. I mean, I am excited to research plants on the internet, join the Grow Native! movement, and go pick up stuff at the nursery, But I am most definitely not in that sustained brimming with enthusiasm excitement that would power me up to wield a pick ax through clay soil to dig up scrub plants that are only suitable for a goat to eat.
It gets harder, you see, to start over. Working with momentum is different that beginning from a full stop and slowly pushing your way forward. Motivating yourself to begin and not feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of the task. Trying not to think about how long it took you the last time you undertook a project like this. Before I moved I would watch people on House Hunters and other such shows complain about the paint color or the tile or the landscaping and I would think, “who cares? just change it when you get there”. But now I understand: it just takes so much mental effort to overcome the emotions that come with starting over or starting from scratch. The worry you can’t do it, that you don’t have it in you, that you are not enough, and that the first time you did it successfully, well, that was just a fluke. The uncertainty keeps you static: maybe you were just lucky before, maybe bad luck will befall you this time.
I know it is just the lawn…but I think Hank Hill understands.