Thursday, June 5, 2014

Battle birds

Nature unfolds on the front lawn

They were sitting on the front porch when it happened. Back then, just a few weeks ago, this was a likely scenario. Lounging outside was still a possibility in the absence of the mosquito legions who had yet to hatch.

Three Common Robin chicks who have,
since the sudden and tragic death of their mother,
grown up and flown the nest and are
“on to bigger and better things,”
as my Mom puts it.
They were probably considering whether or not to play yard games, my sister and her boyfriend, sitting in wicker chairs alongside my mother and stepfather. I imagine the four of them gazing out onto the sunlit lawn late in the day on that fateful afternoon. I was not there when everything went down, but I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye.

In the lawn, below the tall dandelion stocks topped with fuzz, grew lush green grass. Can you see it? Bursting to life the way everything does in the spring. Below that lush green blanket sat life’s baser things - dirt namely, but also bugs, beetles, and worms.

For the better part of a week the most discussed item in the house (besides the last family high school graduation) had been the Robin’s nest in the rafters of the wood shed. In the nest, it was confirmed, lived three Robin chicks. Fuzzy, yet hardly feathered, the first thing anatomically developed by each member of the front yard trio was their gaping yellow mouths, into which their loving mother deposited the yard’s finest fair.


Morning, noon, and night mother bird hunted for her kids. She was a steely huntress, empowered by the overwhelming instinct to mother her youngsters from hatchlings to proud young birds of flight. A veteran mother; you could tell by the alarm she took at anyone approaching her nest from below. She would squawk and call and shout and flutter, even dive at your eyes if she was forced to defend her nest.

These things I did witness.

On that late afternoon, things were no different for the Robin family, so I am told. Mother Robin was hard at her task of keeping a watchful eye on the nest from the woods bordering the woodshed. Her little ones would chirp and open their wide, gaping yellow mouths when they saw her flutter up with food. They snatched at each chunk of earthworm she presented, so fast it was like there was never anything there at all. This kept mother bird constantly on the hunt for more food, and she obliged.

That afternoon, like so many before it, she landed in the front lawn right before my family members sitting on the porch. Mother Robin bounced around in the grass, looking and listening for her prey in the dirt. Her focus sharp as a blade, it was no wonder she missed the shadow overhead.

In a flash the hawk was upon her. She fluttered frantically, but the hawk’s talons had already done their work. Wings flapped, beaks snapped, screeches sounded, and within a few heartbeats Mother Robin was carried off into the woods never again to return to her nesting brood.

My sister’s boyfriend, Jeff, witnessed the whole thing. After the strike occurred, he guided the rest of them through the course of events as it played out on the lawn - first in an impact crater of feathers, then as a trailing line of blood leading towards the woods.

Each family member had their own reaction. Jeff was enthralled with the actual event, having witnessed the whole thing. My sister was in disbelief of what exactly occurred, my mother simply did not want anyone to talk about it, throwing her hands up and shutting her eyes tight, and my stepdad was immediately concerned with what to do about the chicks in the nest.

After the initial crime scene investigation, presented by Jeff, the four of them decided to sit and wait to see if the deceased was in fact their beloved Mother Robin. They waited over an hour, with no sign of another Robin anywhere near the chicks. At that point, the men jumped into action by carefully moving the nest down from the rafters and setting it into a wheelbarrow. From there they could sit and feed the chicks leaf worms which my stepdad purchased at the store. That night they covered the wheelbarrow with a tarp and commenced feeding again the next morning. They even went so far as to call the animal rescue shelter in Minocqua for the chicks and planned to transport them that afternoon. But, later that second day, Father Robin appeared and began squawking at them from the trees.

Eventually, balance was restored, the nest was placed once again in the spot where Mother Robin had carefully crafted it, and Father Robin started regularly feeding the baby birds. I have to say, I can’t really blame him for staying back in the woods for a while after that attack. What good would it have done for him to get snatched up and carried away?

My Mom was (and still is) upset about the whole thing. “It’s like a mother going to the grocery store to buy food for her kids, having an accident, and never coming home; it’s just awful,” she would say. And while I do sympathize, I try to explain to her the hawk was merely doing the same thing Mother Robin was - hunting for her family.

“I understand nature happens all the time out in the woods,” she told me the next time I mentioned the incident, “I just don’t like it happening in my front yard to birdies we’ve been watching!”

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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