The forest is mostly still this morning, as alone I stand beside the pond. Early sun offers dark reflections of lichen-draped, beaver-chewed trees. An American robin probes the muck at water’s edge for an early meal. Another, unseen, is singing in the forest. I cannot detect what the breakfasting bird is pulling from the soft ground—some type of worm perhaps, or a grub. I stay to watch.
The ubiquity of these thrushes often allows an unfortunate dismissal by many who do not even realize that the everyday bird hopping around their lawn is that same one ushering spring with its early morning summon: 𝑯𝒆𝒓𝒆 𝒘𝒆 𝒈𝒐, 𝒉𝒆𝒓𝒆 𝒘𝒆 𝒈𝒐, 𝒇𝒐𝒍𝒍𝒐𝒘 𝒎𝒆! “Carpe diem!” says he.
Watching a robin stretch an earthworm from the ground is a favorite pastime of mine. Whenever I see that most familiar of suburban sights, I am reminded of sitting on my great uncle’s back porch in Lithonia, Georgia following a rain, watching a pair of red-shouldered hawks perch on the lowest limbs of statuesque pines. They stare over their beaks, intently surveying the wet ground. Closer to the house, robins hop through the grass, turning their heads to the side, searching with one eye for their next meal.
The first time it happened, I thought surely the hawks were waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on the unsuspecting robins, but no. Instead, they followed the robins’ lead. When they spotted a target, they would swiftly glide to the ground, and with their sharply decurved beak, evolved for ripping flesh from bone, they would pull a soft, wriggling earthworm from the soil and promptly slurp it down. Then, back up to the wire to begin the hunt anew.
I watched this routine several times over the years—usually on a lazy spring Sunday following a Saturday fishing trip. For years I thought this must be an anomaly performed only by the red-shoulders that nested in the top of Uncle Donald’s pine trees. Then, decades after that first witness, I saw it again on a farm a hundred miles from his yard. I called Uncle Donald to tell him about the hawks on Lookout Mountain and how they were acting just like his, and that his birds weren’t the only ones that did that. He laughed at his forty-year-old nephew, then said very matter-of-factly, “Of course you didn’t really think these hawks would behave any different than others.” But, of course, I did, or I at least wanted that to be the case.
Uncle Donald has been gone for a few years now, and my new home state of Alaska is not visited by red-shouldered hawks, but as long as American robins hunt worms, neither my uncle, nor his hawks will ever venture too far from my thoughts.
The pondside robin stops the hunt, and moves to a shallow where the morning light breaks through the trees around him. Never fully submersing, he stands belly-deep, repeatedly leaning forward, dipping his face in the water, fluttering his wings on the surface but never extending them. He repeats this for a minute or two, then flies to a nearby branch to preen.Having removed dust and mites in the water, he now carefully works each feather into proper shape. Occasionally, he reaches back to squeeze a uropygial gland just above his tail, milking out a drop of oil with which he will mindfully coat each feather. This oil of his own making will keep his plumage flexible, strong, and waterproof.
Between preens, he stretches his wings, separating the feathers and slowly re-stacking them in perfect order. Most birds will preen several times a day to keep their feathers in tip-top shape. Coupled birds sometimes perform ritual preenings together, but this morning, this fellow is preening just for me.Truth is, I don’t know if this is a fellow or not. Males tend to be slightly more vibrantly colored, the females slightly less so, but unlike more dramatically sexually dimorphic birds, robins aren’t always so obvious. His colors seem pretty vibrant to me, though, so I am sticking with my designation.
Starting early in spring, mated robins share in the care of two or three successive broods, so there is a good chance he has a mate back at the nest incubating eggs, or feeding hatchlings.
When this robin of whatever sex is finished preening, it flies into the forest, leaving me to wander, alone with my memories. Sometimes I wish the forty-year-old me had not seen that worm-hunting hawk on Lookout Mountain, or that when I told my uncle about my discovery, that he would have acted surprised, like I was.
Or, perhaps what I am really wishing for, is that whenever anyone sees a robin bathe, or preen, or pull an earthworm from the ground following a rain, that rather than seeing a common bird engaging in everyday behavior, we might view it as if it was our first robin, pulling its first worm, still holding the potential that it might be the only one in the world.