Friday, January 27, 2012

`As If It Had Made Up Its Mind to Stay'

Two mornings in a row I observed the silhouette of a puffed-up, ample-breasted bird perched in a shrub outside my office window. The branch bobbed in the wind fifteen feet over the sidewalk. Featureless in the early-morning murk, the robin-sized bird remained as impassive as a duck decoy. The second day I walked outside and confirmed he was a robin, Turdus migratorius (not what you think: turdus is Latin for “thrush”). He reminded me of a small pen-and-ink sketch I bought many years ago in an Indiana antiques shop: “Round Robin.”

Where I grew up in Ohio, the robin was a seasonal alarm clock, an early herald of spring we started looking for in February. Not so in Texas. B.C. Robison writes in Birds of Houston (Rice University Press, 1990):

“…in southeast Texas it is a harbinger of the deep winter. The bird starts moving into the Houston area in December, and it remains fairly numerous through March. Robins begin to migrate back north in April, and by late summer they are seldom seen in the city.”

By repute, the robin is the gentlest of birds, an honorary dove, at least to humans, though I’ve watched them pull meters of earthworm from the lawn. Between 1824 and 1826, John Clare composed a series of “Natural History Letters” (The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, edited by Margaret Grainger, 1983) to his friend James Augustus Hessey. Among them is a lengthy description of a robin he befriended as a boy growing up in Helpston:

“…in winter it will venture into the house for food & become as tame as a chicken—we had one that usd [sic] to come in at a broken pane in the window three winters together I always knew it to be our old visitor by a white scar on one of the wings [del. which might have been an old wound made by some cat] it grew so tame that it would perch on ones [sic] finger & take the crumbs out of the hand…it would never stay in the house at night tho it would attempt to perch on the chair spindles & clean its bill & ruffles its feather & put its head under its wing as if it had made up its mind to stay”


Tim Dee said...

Clare's robin and yours are different species though both fond of worms. Although Clare added more than 150 species of birds to his county avifauna he never saw an American robin. They are only vagrants to Europe. The European robin is the same the other way.

The Sanity Inspector said...

When I go out in the summer to water the lawn, robins will throng to our yard, to catch the earthworms that are flushed up. Even when I'm just washing the car, the robins recognize the hose and jets of water, and hop about expectantly on the yard by the driveway.