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Volume 16, Issue 9 - February 28 - March 5, 2008

Everybody Likes a Robin

But would you like one to eat?

“Who killed Cock Robin?”

“I” said the sparrow

With my bow and arrow,

I killed Cock Robin.”

At least it wasn’t a cat that killed Cock Robin in the most disturbing of the nursery rhymes Aunt Caroline and Grandma Burton read to me as a child. I knew which bird was a robin. It was probably the first bird I ever saw, certainly the first I could identify; there were oodles of them near Grandma’s farmhouse.

They were attracted by the cherry tree in the front lawn and by Auntie’s flower garden, where she was always weeding and rooting around. The freshly turned soil turned up many a worm, grub and such for their meals. When they saw Auntie, often accompanied by me, in the garden, in close they would come to dine.

They were the closest birds I could come to, until the brazen catbirds and mocking birds arrived. It was probably their abundance that stirred my life-long appreciation of songbirds. There were brilliant bluebirds, too, living in their special boxes that Uncle Jack put up for Auntie, whose favorites were bluebirds and mocking birds. I chose the robin. It was more human-sociable, and the breast of the cocks were a distinctive red.

I blanched every time I was read about Cock Robin’s demise. It never occurred to me that not only sparrows but also, once upon a time, men hunted robins with bows.

I’ll Not Kill Cock Robin

Had I known that, I might never have become an ardent hunter and outdoors writer. As much as I’ve hunted in my 82 years on this earth, rarely did I participate in shoots for small birds. Only when young did I shoot bobwhite quail and then only as part of a day’s planned hunting schedule. Then one day I just said No, no more. It was the same with small railbirds of the marshes. Any bird smaller than a ruffed grouse didn’t interest me.

For a short time, I became interested in the Maryland tradition of dove shooting. The birds were fast, the shooting likewise, and we were told their lifespans were short and those not shot would go to waste if not reaped by men with guns. I bought that line until I arrived at an Eastern Shore hunt well before the legal shooting hour of noon, took my assigned post, sat down and waited.

Doves were flying to and fro, some feeding on corn leavings nearby in the field. As I watched them, it came to me that these were the same birds I raised sunflowers for. I put my shotgun in its case and left the field. I didn’t even want to watch the others shoot those gentle birds.

I wasn’t tempted to kill a robin even when, at age 24, I was marooned with two others on a big island on Vermont’s Lake Champlain for three days by howling winds and very rough waters. We had brought only potatoes, onions and bacon, intending fried fish to be our main fare. That was in the early 1950s. We had only a rowboat with a 15-horse engine, one of the biggest around back then. The mainland was at least a mile away; cell phones weren’t even thought of.

Without any fish, the bacon was gone the first day, which left only potatoes, onions and few candy bars, with that supply getting low. Midday of the second day, one of my two partners suggested potting a few of the many robins on the island fields; it wouldn’t be illegal because it was a matter of survival. In the bushes, I hid the .22 rifle left in the cabin for shooting pesky raccoons and the porcupines that chewed up the outhouse in search of salt.

I wasn’t very popular in camp, but the robins should have appreciated my endeavor. The second night, the winds eased off. We made it to the mainland the next day and stopped at the first eatery on the road. Bacon and eggs, lots of them, were better than robins, which I couldn’t have eaten anyhow.

Songbird Stew

Years ago in National Geographic’s Song and Garden Birds of North America, I read that once many disagreed with my appraisal of robins as unfit for a snack or a meal. The author was Audubon himself.

The subject was the rafts of robins in southern states, where they sometimes come in thousands upon thousands to sleep in thickets and swamplands. Audubon wrote in 1841 that these roosts “caused sort of a jubilee” among hunters who went after the birds with “bows and arrows, blow pipes, guns and traps of different sorts.”

He continued, “Every gunner brings them home by bagsful, and the markets are supplied with them at a very cheap rate. Several persons may at this season stand round the foot of a cherry tree and shoot the greater part of the day, so fast do the flocks of robins succeed each other. They are then fat and juicy, and afford excellent eating.”

Thank heaven, long ago federal and state laws put an end to the shooting of songbirds. Bobwhites and doves are the only exceptions; though to me they’re songbirds, the hunting guides one gets with a license don’t agree. I can’t imagine my response if a hunter banged on my door to ask permission to hunt robins at my home up here in North County.

Now on Lawns Near You

I was thinking of that the other day, when the shooting would have been fast indeed. Light snow was falling as the most robins I’ve seen gathered on my lawn. There they were, hundreds of them, and it was the same on a few other nearby lawns. There had to be a thousand or more in all. They were, with heads cocked sideways, scouring the still-bare ground for signs of juicy worms, grubs and such.

It had to be a migration from a more southern region, as the birds that have wintered hereabouts are seldom seen. As they leave for the north, the vacuum is erased by fresh birds from the south. In a domino effect, robins are everywhere. By September, a region’s robins head south, there replacing others that can go as far as Mexico.

In early spring, they head back home again in flocks, reaching northern states and Canada by mid-March. Some make it to the southern extremes of Alaska by late March. Once back home, the male finds a perch, puffs out his orange-red breast, spreads his tail and sings loudly to claim his territory. Soon the nest is built; then comes the familiar light blue eggs.

I don’t know if any of those robins I saw the other day chose to summer over hereabouts, but they would surely be welcome. One thing you can’t have too many of is robins. Enough said.

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