When we moved to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains some years ago we had to adjust our ideas about country life. There are no barnyards here, and few vegetable gardens with a growing season of only ten weeks. We are surrounded by pine trees forty feet tall and a dense growth of gambol oak. There are neighbors within shouting distance but we can’t see them from our house.
For the most part we live in a cool silence deep enough to hear yourself think. Don’t misunderstand; I have no complaint. It’s just a very new experience.
Especially the wildlife. It turns out that Woodpeckers are very early risers. At the first tiny flush of dawn they are trying to break into our house. They are difficult to discourage and quite large. We tried all the traditional tricks before we discovered they are as afraid of themselves as we are of them. Mirrors did the trick.
The black bears in our neighborhood are dangerous if they feel threatened, but what idiot would threaten a black bear. Ours love garbage and are especially partial to asparagus trimmings. They resent interruption of any meal, however noisy, and tend to avoid dogs. We try to keep our garbage in an inconvenient location but now and then we just have to say “bon appetite” and stay out of range.
There is a mountain lion in the neighborhood. We haven’t seen him but many of our neighbors have. He’s been here longer than any of us and since there are plenty of deer, his entree of choice, we co-exist.
There are squirrels and chipmunks and a bossy red fox who views us as troublesome tenants, but by far the best interaction we have with our wildlife is with the robins.
Our first spring here, after the woodpeckers had us fully awake at 5 a.m., we heard a curious thumping noise. I looked everywhere I could think of but it took quite a while to pinpoint the source. A huge magnificent robin was in the tree outside my office window. About every thirty seconds he would fling himself against the glass, trying to come in. As soon as I moved around enough for him to see me he flew away. This went on for a week before I finally called the wildlife authority and asked what I could do.
The woman I spoke with said there wasn’t much to do really. “Robins,” she explained gently, “just aren’t very smart birds.” She gave me a list of techniques to try to discourage the bird and said good luck. I tried everything, but Einstein -- as we came to call him -- was determined to come into my office and work with me. All through the summer he made at least a token effort to get in every day or so. One fall day he was gone. I spent a lot of time searching for him, but he didn’t come back.
The following spring, I was distracted from missing Einstein by two new robins building a nest in a tree limb that overhangs our driveway. I was totally disgusted by what I thought was a stupid move. The limb was over concrete, low to the ground and not too difficult for a cat to reach. Oh well, I reasoned, at least I would have a good view of them from the kitchen windows and the front porch.
They were gorgeous birds and very diligent workers, unlike the slothful Einstein who spent all his time in a futile effort to get inside, beating the feathers off one side of his head in the process. The nest was almost finished when I heard a ruckus and looked out to find the robins in serious trouble.
They were under attack by a magpie. Elegant, black and white, stunning to look at, the magpies are no more than vultures in drag. They feed on road kill and serve their purpose I’m sure, but I had no intention of allowing them to destroy the home of my own special robins. I went raging out the front door waving my arms and shouting. The magpie left instantly, squawking his alarm. The robins settled calmly on their branch and regarded me with disdain. They were not afraid of me at all.
For weeks I watched my robins tend their precarious home. They completed its construction and the female laid her eggs. One or the other of them was always there. The eggs were never left alone. Eventually I could see hungry mouths reaching up from the nest whenever a parent would come in with treats.
The magpies made many attempts on the nest, but I was a vigilant guardian. They would park some distance away in their formal attire and watch me warily with evil black eyes. But they were very afraid of me and of our dog Murphy, a big lolling Golden Retriever who wouldn’t hurt a fly but would chase anything. Especially a big black and white bird flying over the front porch. Even my husband and son got into the act, making sure the magpies didn’t get any tasty baby robins for supper.
When the babies were finally too big to attract the magpies the neighbor’s cat developed an unseemly interest in our front porch. Murphy proved invaluable here, watching intently until Kitty was totally focused on her quarry then barking ferociously. The cat would jump three feet but the robins stirred not a feather. They were safe and they knew it.
One early summer morning I looked out the window to check on the babies and was rewarded for my vigilance with the charming sight of five baby robins leaving the nest. They were lined up on the branch looking nervous, huddled tightly together while the parents flew wildly around calling out what could have been encouragement or threats, I couldn’t say. The babies were as round as oranges and speckle-breasted. Larger than their parents, they looked confused and terrified. I stayed inside.
For days I would see the babies around the property. The parents were still feeding them and teaching them the facts of life. Within just a few days the speckles gave way to the beautiful red-orange feathers that make them so obviously robins and soon they were babies no more.
Late that summer Einstein returned. I heard him thumping on my window one early morning and rushed to say hello. He stayed around for over a month and then one day I found him in the yard. I knew it was him because one side of his head was so badly beaten up. Scabby looking feathers and a lopsided skull left no doubt. He had hit our big picture window and broken his neck.
I have had to bury several birds because of the big windows, but none with such sadness as this one. He made me think of an aging boxer who just didn’t know the fight was over. I could see how the wildlife lady drew her conclusions.
Eventually the empty robin’s nest blew out of the tree and I reluctantly discarded it, hoping they might build there again next year. They haven’t yet, but I still hope.
Robins may not be very intelligent birds, but they were smart enough to get three human beings and a very large dog to stand guard over their home while they warmed and fed their young.
Apparently they are smart enough.