A Tale of Two Robins

It seems that nostalgic European settlers have long been prone to naming any bird with a flash of red on the chest “robins” after the beloved little birds they remember from home.

The European, and seemingly original, robin is a small bird — part of the flycatcher family, with a red orange breast and face. The North American robin is an entirely different bird. Part of the thrush family, it’s much bigger, with a yellow beak and striking white markings around the eyes. Really the only point of commonality is that red breast.

Further afield, in Australia you can find the Flame Robin, Scarlet Robin, Red-Capped Robin — none of which are related to either the European or American varieties, except in that little flash of red breast. More homesick settlers, I’m thinking.

I grew up in the UK, so I have tended to think of the British robin as the “real” one.

In reality, the only birds I was actually familiar with as a child growing up on the industrial docks of the Tyne,  were gulls and pigeons. Lots and lots of pigeons!

But robins did loom large in my imagination. Each Christmas my mum decorated the snow-peaked ( and rock hard) royal icing on the Christmas cake with with a small flock of plastic robins, to accompany the rather frightening plaster Santa with mis-matched eyes.

Somehow, I still have a single one of these little robins, although most of his red breast paint has now worn off.

Robins were, and still are, as far as I know, featured on cards and stamps to celebrate the Festive Season in Britain. In the Victorian era, when the sending and receiving of festive greeting cards first became fashionable, the mail carriers wore red tunics and were nicknamed robin redbreasts — bringers of winter cheer, just like the birds.

The British robins stay put all year round, but are less obvious in the summer months — probably being busy with nesting and all, and are more associated with chirpy, charming and colourful company through the winter months.

Whenever I go back to Britain I’m constantly on the lookout for a robin. For some reason, the only place I ever see them close up is at the tea rooms of Portmeirion village in North Wales.

Portmeirion Tea Room robin, 2010

Welsh robin on a picnic table

Portmeirion Tea Room robin, 2019

I like to imagine they’re all there, just waiting for me, one robin generation after another.

British robins are very, very territorial, so that’s just about possible. They are so very fierce about defending their home turf that 10% of mature male birds actually die doing just that.

Welsh robin and stone wall photo collage by June Hunter
Having been in Canada now for most of my life, my Robin Reality has now switched to the North American variety, which has its own charm.

American robin in cherry tree photograph

Seasonally, the robins here are most associated with spring, when they’re the first birds to sing in the morning, and the last to fall quiet at night.

Although we think of them in connection with spring, when their courting song fills the air, they’re actually around all winter here in Vancouver. Perhaps we don’t notice them so much because they behave very differently during the colder months.

American robin camouflaged in gum tree photograph by June Hunter

Spot the robin …

In spring they form pairs and are territorial like their European namesakes, but in winter they live rather cooperatively in large nomadic flocks, sometimes with starlings and other birds, like Cedar Waxwings. They pop up in large groups whenever they find a good source of fruit on trees. Holly, juniper, crabapples and hawthorn are all robin-approved winter fare.

American robin and crabapples photograph by June Hunter

Fun fact: American robins have an extendible esophagus, which allows them to store berries harvested in the daytime for an evening snack to help survive the cold nights.

(I am reminded of the rather terrifying Horlicks TV ads of my youth, where a scientific looking graph traced the worrying arc of “night starvation” — a fate that could only be avoided by imbibing a nice cup of pre-bed Horlicks. I expect night starvation is much more of a reality for a wild robin than for a well fed child of the 1960’s.)

Once spring arrives, the flocks disperse and robins break into pairs, staking out and aggressively defending nesting territory.
When the berries are finished they’ll happily switch to yanking worms out of lawns.

One of my favourite things about the spring and summer robin, apart from the singing, is the gusto with which they take a bath. If the birdbath is suddenly empty, I assume that an enthusiastic robin has just used the facilities.

The folklore around how robins of all types first acquired that fiery red breast is strikingly similar on both sides of the Atlantic. In all versions of the tale,  the brave little robin saves sleeping humans from freezing, using their wings to fan the embers of a dying fire, in spite of the heat and danger. As a reward for their heroism, the robin is awarded the red breast as a badge of honour.

Here’s a beautifully illustrated version of the Sechelt People’s version of the story by Charlie Craigan.

Click fo enlarge

It’s nice to know that however far you travel, they’ll always be some sort of robin to fall in love with.

Echoes of If You Can’t Be with the One You Love, Honey, Love the One You’re With.

Here’s lookin’ at you …

 

 

For more posts on the joy of watching robins, and other birds, bathing:

 

 

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Signs of Spring

The signs of spring are there.  Admittedly, they’re a little tricky to spot in the world of snow and ice outside …

What the …?

Frozen puddle on this morning’s dog walk.

… but the birds know, in their featherlight bones, that spring is just around the corner. The small birds, finches and song sparrows especially, are  in full mating mode, chasing each other around the garden like daredevil Spitfire pilots.

Song sparrow diving into the season, even if it is covered in snow.

Female house finch and junco share a perch.

Male house finch in rosy finery

Goldfinch feasting on the coral bark maple tree.

A sure sign of spring is the sudden and ominous banging noise that makes me think the furnace is about to blow up …  an annual event which always turns out to be a Northern Flicker hammering on the metal chimney.  The neighbourhood will soon be echoing with the sounds  of amorous male flickers experimenting with different percussive surfaces, checking to see which offers the most impressive volume.

This flicker discovered that hollow aluminium deck railings deliver awesome reverb.

One morning a few days ago we left the house to find our street magically full of robins, singing their song of spring, and feasting on the large holly bush at the end of the street.

A close look at the ornamental plum trees on our street  shows some tightly furled little buds starting to appear.

 

In the 28 years we’ve lived beside them, the average time for these trees to bloom is the third week of March. They’re looking a wee bit behind schedule at the moment, but some sunshine and warmth in the coming weeks could get them back on track.

I haven’t seen any overt signs of nest building yet, but the crows are arguing along the edges of their territories. All of this squabbling leads me to believe they’re in the early stages of nest site selection.

Eric and Clara vie with Marvin and Mavis for hegemony in the poplars.

Marvin and Mavis view their real estate options from  the Crows Nest vantage point.

Ms. and Mr. Wing stand guard at the entrance to their fiefdom up on William Street.

 

Garden-wise, the signs of spring are obscure.

I feel a psychic kinship with the frost-fainted snowdrops.

The poor hellebores were breezily blooming in January only to be hastily buried in leaves when February’s snow and freezing weather swept in. They remain hidden, hopefully poIsed for a second act when things finally warm up.

Perhaps because I miss them, and possibly influenced by my convalescent hours with Monty Don, I’ve been playing around with some of my floral images from years gone by to create some new cushion cover designs.

While I dream of waking up to this view again …

… I’m working on some new images to invoke that spring feeling.

Spring Couple

New Growth

It’s difficult to say when Real Spring will finally show up, but Marvin seemed to be consulting a third party this morning.

Tell me, oh All Knowing Bird, when will Spring arrive?

As reliable source of weather information as any.

Perhaps I should ask him some of my financial planning questions …

A sequel to: Waiting For Spring

Nesting News

Eric Face

In our local Crowlandia we’re ricocheting between serenity and stress.

Suspense is the name of the game as eggs and hatchlings start to fill the nests.

Most days it’s seems really very peaceful. The crows maintain an uncharacteristic hush behind leafy screens, quietly guarding their nests.

In April, it was possible to see a pair of crows constructing, and then sitting on, a nest high in the poplars from the comfort of my dining room window …

A couple of weeks later and the nest is discreetly hidden by foliage.

I’m pretty sure that this nest belongs to the Firehall Family of crows.

One day earlier this week both of the nesters made a rare double trip down to terra firma for a chat.

Perhaps they were out on a date, although one of them seemed to be feeling the need for a little personal space ….

Eric and Clara are around too. I think their nest is also in the poplars, just a bit to the south of the Firehall nest. It’s not within view of my window and too far up to see from the ground, but Eric is guarding his corner diligently.

Eric on Alert

A couple of weeks ago there were a few inter-crow skirmishes between Eric and the Firehall gang, presumable sparked by minor breaches of neighbourly conduct.

Crow Skirmish

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A detente seems to have been reached lately.

A circumspect hush has fallen over the neighbourhood.

Now that nests are becoming populated, location is an even more closely guarded secret. Energy must be saved for the most important things.

Part of the silence seems due to the absence of some of usual crow enemies at the moment.

The ravens have moved on. I haven’t seen or heard one near here for almost a month now. Also missing: the pair of bald eagles that usually cruise the area at this time of year. Perhaps both ravens and eagles are waiting to hear the quacking of baby crows before they start their “grocery shopping” expeditions.

But there is one sure thing around now that will get the nesting crows to break their silence.

With a vengeance.

Crow Raccoon Committee

Meeting of CCC (Concerned Corvid Citizens) in the alley earlier this week.

Cawing Marvin

Two weeks ago Marvin cawed for an entire day. He was cawing when I got up, before 6am, and he was still at it when dusk fell. Even by crow standards, he was sounding a bit hoarse by then.

The culprit, in both of these incidents, was almost certainly the masked bandit. The tree in which Marvin and Mavis seem to have their nest has been robbed by racoons every spring since I’ve been noticing such things.

Yesterday, on the dog walk, I heard a furious crow, then noticed a small, lollipop-shaped tree in someone’s garden shaking as if in a hurricane.

As it was a windless morning I decided to wait and see what happened next.

Sure enough …

Raccoon climbs out of a tree

Raccoon on a Wall

I’m not sure if the raccoon scored any eggs this time. Perhaps Geordie and I interrupted this particular heist, but those clever little hands are very adept at nest robbing. I suppose there are little raccoon kits waiting for lunch somewhere.

Circle of life, and etc …

Crow Seeking Advice

Marvin and his trusty pal, Rusty, engage in philosophical discussion on the back gate.

Marvin is still coming by occasionally for a snack and visit. I imagine Mavis is on the nest, so I’m hoping Marvin is thoughtfully saving some peanuts to take back for her.

Morning Visit from Marvin

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On a recent dog walk I heard a crow begging call coming form a cedar tree. It sounded just like a baby crow calling for “food, food, food” — but it’s too early for such noisy youngsters. As I suspected, it was a mother crow, confined to nest duty, calling out to dad to quit lolling about, pondering the meaning of life, and *@#*%! bring her something to eat.

Mother Crow with Nest

Soon, we will be hearing the ceaseless “quacking” sound of dozens of baby crows, all vying for parental feeding service

Calling Baby Crow

Feeding Baby Crows

I am the cutest of my siblings. I am the loudest. Feed me. Feed me. F-E-E-D M-E!!

For a further preview of things to come, see my 2014 post: DIVE BOMBED BY CROWS

In the meantime, at least when the area is raccoon-free, it’s pretty quiet around here.

But those devoted parents are ever-vigilant. Was that the shadow of an eagle  … ?

Crow Sky Watchers

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In Anticipation of Spring

The weather forecast says it’s going to be WARM next week. Can it be true?

At our house we are skeptical, a bit like wet West Coast versions of the winter-traumatized Canadians in this video from the Rick Mercer Show.

But the robin in our garden seems to be getting ready for something special, so maybe there’s some truth in the forecast this time.

NOTE: Videos to follow, so if you’re reading this as an email, CLICK HERE TO SEE THEM.

This joyful exuberance explains why the bird bath needs to be refilled every day …

When you’re anticipating tail-feather-shaking weather, you must have each and every tail feather in top condition.

Spring cleaning complete!

Tomorrow is a brand new day.

In the words of Van Morrison:

“When all the dark clouds roll away
And the sun begins to shine
I see my freedom from across the way
And it comes right in on time
Well it shines so bright and it gives so much light
And it comes from the sky above
Makes me feel so free makes me feel like me
And lights my life with love”

May your weekend contain as much fun and freedom as the robin.

Whatever the weather brings.

Robin on a branch

 

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In Praise of Early Mornings

Moon

Insomnia can be a drag. I don’t think I’ve actually had a really solid night’s sleep since my first child was born almost 26 years ago. First of all it’s the usual – feeding, teething, nightmares. Then it becomes a habit to wake up every few hours. After that, the teenage years come to keep you (well, me) wide awake and staring into the dark for hours at a time. Then, suddenly, you’re an old lady and everybody knows that old ladies sleep very lightly.

But, as with all problems, there are sometimes perks. I no longer lie in bed staring at the ceiling. I get up and explore. Those very early mornings have become a special time for me. It’s as if I’ve made a heist from the time bank and I have an hour or so to fritter away.

First of all, a cup of tea must be made.

The essential early morning companion.

The essential early morning companion.

After that, what to do? Sometimes I just wander around the house admiring the sheer artistry of the mess a family can create. Strewn clothing, the table buried in a pile of newspapers, magazines and neglected paperwork. Somehow at that time in the morning it doesn’t seem right to worry about tidying, so I can just appreciate the story of how everything got where it came to rest. I am always somewhat comforted by a quote from a Globe and Mail columnist I read years ago that said something about the homes of the most interesting people “showing signs of recent struggle”. I often think that (a) we must be really fascinating and (b) our housekeeping style has the added bonus of being a burglary deterrent. “Hmm, this place has already been ransacked — let’s move on.”

Our house is pretty chilly in the early hours, before the furnace comes on, so in winter I start the day in woollen slippers and a double layer of dressing gowns — one flannel, one fleece. This is a handy because I can slip out of the house, onto the roof deck, or into the garden, without immediately freezing to death.

Frost on the coral bark maple.

Frost on the coral bark maple.

Sometimes I even venture out of the garden in my multi-layered dressing gown attire. Luckily we have understanding neighbours.

Sometimes I even venture out of the garden in my multi-layered dressing gown attire. Luckily we have understanding neighbours.

Everything at that special hour seems somehow very particular. In that little bubble of time I like to watch the birds arriving and see how they start their feathered days.

A pine siskin takes a moment in the ice fog for a little personal grooming.

A pine siskin takes a moment in the ice fog for a little personal grooming.

Two Robins, One Starling

Two Robins, One Starling

I like to look up at my particular little patch of hydro wire criss-crossed sky and see it changing. Every dawn is like the turning of a mini-season.

Crows enjoying the moonset as the sun rises.

Crows enjoying the moonset as the sun rises.

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Crows enjoying a rosy dawn.

Always, when I look to the east, I see the crows returning in small groups from the roost at Still Creek. They settle on the wires and enjoy the view for a while, do a little grooming, have a bite to eat — and then we all go on about our respective busy days.

Who needs Tiffany, when you have nature's diamond necklace?

Who needs Tiffany, when you have nature’s diamond necklace?

A frosty take off. Things to get to at the office ...

A frosty take off. Things to get to at the office …

 

logo with crow

Joie De Vivre

 

Goal: To have as much fun as this robin at least once a day.

Joie de VivreHow do you seek out those carefree moments?
I love to head out into the back yard, or around my East Vancouver neighbourhood, camera in hand and mind open to whatever lovely thing comes along.

I’d love to hear how you find your daily moments of “joie de vivre”. Just leave a comment to let us in on your secret.