Nest Year: How 2020 Became our Year of the Robin

How do you measure a year? In daylights, in sunsets, or maybe in Sephora orders? (My one quantifiable accomplishment in 2020 was moving up from VIB to Rouge Sephora membership.) How about in clutches of robins, in five baby birds? The latter is how I measure 2020. It was a two-clutch, five-baby-bird year.

Our 2020 robin story started in April 2018, when an industrious robin started fluttering about the front porch of our Toronto home, placing twigs and leaves and discarded tissues — even a Starbucks lid — on the protruding ledge of one of the columns holding up the slanted roof. I knew little about robins but did some research and discovered that the females build the nests. I rooted our girl on and marvelled at her work ethic — Churchillian levels of “never give up” and no apparent slide into a dark mood. So contrary to my own, which involves sporadic bursts of creativity and exertion followed by months of self-doubt, buck-passing and inertia.

According to the Canadian Wildlife Federation, female robins make an average of 180 trips a day when building their nest and take about two to six days to do so. To me, 180 trips per day seemed low. She was far busier than that. She had, in theory, picked a perfect spot: the column ledge was on the inward side of the porch, making any potential nest relatively safe from the vexing moods of the weather gods. It was also safe from raccoons and cats — for whatever great problem-solvers are the former and however enviable climbers the latter, I could not imagine them mastering a smooth column or making that great a leap.

But the little ledge was also only about four inches wide and the impressive stockpiles of nest-making materials that our girl would place there would fall off in no time, leaving a mess on our porch, and that of our neighbours (we live in a semi-detached home). We took turns cleaning up the daily pile of twigs and assorted clumps, but we had different takes on the amount of moral support we should offer.

A note about me — I am a bit of an animal person, in the way that Queen Elizabeth II is a bit of a British Royal. As my partner says, “You always take their side.” I do. I love the story of the late television critic Cleveland Amory, who once wrote that he was “cheering for the ledge” when watching an episode of Emergency! where a hunter had to be rescued from said ledge. I would be doing the same. So I wasn’t thrilled when my partner began referring to our robin as “that dumb robin.” Why can’t she, he said, suss out that the spot on which she is so determined to build is simply too narrow? How much failure can she endure? Why can’t she see that it is a fruitless quest? We had, he said, a wonderful Japanese cherry tree out front, one with plenty of branches and plenty of foliage for cover. Why doesn’t she redirect her efforts? She is not dumb, I said. She sees something we fail to and is trying to find a path to it.

Our neighbours decided to put a stop to what they viewed as a Sisyphean quest by putting a brick on the ledge. They reasoned that if we pointed her away from the porch, she might choose more wisely. I cried, knowing how much I would miss her, imagining her finding the brick and feeling despair, and thinking we should let her make her own choices. I got a ladder and removed the offending object, but it was too late. Robins, it seems, accept the things they cannot change more swiftly than humans.

That year, at least, she did not return. But in the spring of 2019, she did. At least I think it was her. When my partner wondered how I was certain it was the same bird, I said, “I recognize her.” He found this amusing. She was certainly doing the same things: bopping about on our front walk and front lawn, making herself at home on the porch, picking up leaves and twigs and snotty discarded Kleenexes, clumps of soil, bits of sandwich wrappers and petals and madly trying to shape them into a respectable home on that same tiny spot.

After two weeks of this, our neighbours — the parents of young children — came up with a plan. Rather than try to dissuade her, they proposed securely attaching a homemade nest-box to the area, one that would prevent all the nest-building materials from blowing away and would protect any nest, once built, from falling. They thought it would be great for their kids to watch the birds care for their young, to watch the babies fly the coop, to witness the whole cycle. And it would have been, but Madame Robin did not take kindly to the human attempt at help. She disappeared without dropping so much as one blade of grass onto the “improved” nest foundation. She did not appreciate our attempts to help — I can do it myself, humans! Our neighbours removed the offending object at the end of summer.

I feared she had been permanently deterred, but in mid-April 2020 — a few weeks into our era of plague — a jolly bright robin appeared on our front steps, grass in beak. Was it our girl of springs and summers past? Likely not, as the lifespan of North American robins in the city is about two years. But it was another determined nest-builder, displaying the same tenacity as her predecessor and fixated on the same spot. Working from home, I had more time to watch her and thought I might get some photographs. I became appreciative of the efforts of birdwatchers, as the slightest approach on my part sent her flying. I seriously considered putting a bird blind on our porch.

Two weeks in, there was still no nest. We had resigned ourselves to watching another avian defeat. Early May brought a powerful rain and windstorm to Toronto and I remember thinking, listening to the wind, that any progress our girl had made would get blown away with such force she would never try again, at least not at our house.

I was so very wrong.

The morning after the storm I looked out the front window and saw a nest, a sturdy, messy, twiggy and muddy nest, solidly set on the narrow ledge that we were all convinced could never hold one. Madame Robin had taken advantage of the storm and scooped up beakfuls of mud to make a base. She had strengthened and assembled from there. So much toil had gone into it, and yet it seemed to have manifested magically. We were dazzled. Why this robin succeeded where the previous had failed I could not be sure, though birdwatching friends tell me our 2020 robin was probably more experienced. She might also have been emboldened or aided by the pandemic: fewer people outside, fewer cars, a calmer ambience — perhaps it all allowed her to focus and create. (Sadly, the pandemic has not had that effect on me.)

At this point, I thought I should give her a name. I chose Elenore, like the Turtles’ song. I liked singing it to her from the window. “Elenore, gee I think you’re swell… you’re my pride and joy et cetera.” (Any lyric that incorporates “et cetera” is ok with me.) That same week, a male robin made his presence known and I — unimaginatively — named him Franklin. They became Eleanor and Franklin, with “Eleanor” spelled a la Roosevelt.

I was not convinced the nest would stay put and given how high up it was, I assumed we would never know whether eggs had been laid until they hatched. But our neighbours came to the rescue. During the pandemic, they had moved to a cottage they own in Northern Ontario, renting out their home to a series of families during their absence. Before leaving they placed security cameras on the premises, including one — coincidentally — over the spot where Eleanor built her nest. They allowed us access to the cameras and “egg watch” began. Within five days there were two perfect blue eggs in the nest and two formidable parents on high alert: they noticed every single movement, even from inside our house. If we stood behind our (closed) front door to peer out they noticed; if we looked out the front window they noticed; if we crouched down by the side of the porch to watch them, they noticed. They would, I remember thinking, make great spies. Nothing escaped their senses.

For thirteen days, Eleanor did the bulk of the incubating, while Franklin brought food to her and took her spot when she needed me time. He was also Protector-in-Chief — whenever we took the garbage out along the side of the house or otherwise got anywhere near the nest, he dive-bombed our heads. For thirteen days I worried about the weather, worried about the nest falling over, worried about what appeared to be a war of attrition between the robins and the sparrows who frequented the neighbours’ oak tree. For thirteen days I worried about whether Eleanor was getting enough to eat — we turned on our sprinkler, whether needed or not, to help Franklin find worms — worried about people walking up the porch steps, as even slight movements sent Eleanor away in a panic. Due to Covid, there were few visitors, although we could not do much about the mailman or the Amazon delivery people. I went so far as to ask the neighbouring renters to use their back door to come and go (as we were doing). When I explained why, they could not have been more obliging.

For thirteen days we waited for the eggs to hatch. I kept checking the camera, hoping to see a little soul emerge. On Day 13, I noticed Eleanor flying off with shell pieces in her mouth, depositing them halfway down the block. A little research taught me that this was to throw predators off the trail of the hatchlings. And two hatchlings we had. I named them Teddy and Alice, though yes, I know that FDR and Eleanor did not have children named Teddy and Alice — just an uncle/legendary nature-loving President and his daughter. But the new life looked like a Teddy and an Alice to me.

For another 13 days, we watched Teddy and Alice grow. They started off as scrawny, wet-looking, lizardy beings, scarcely recognizable as birds. We saw orange mouths open in hunger each time Eleanor left to run an errand. We saw funny little “dino-heads,” as we called them, sticking up from the nest when mama took her self-care breaks. We watched the reptilian skin change to downy fluff and then to brownish feathers with orange spots and funny tufts of feathers on their heads. For 13 days we watched partnership as Franklin stood on guard in our cherry tree, attempting to strafe real or imagined interlopers. We heard the two of them call to each other throughout the day, most loudly when anyone stepped up onto the porch. We noticed that every sunset Eleanor sat on top of her babies and stayed there without budging till morning. It was hard to not worry about the size of the nest and the fact that the jostling little characters inside of it seemed likely to topple it as they grew. Watching them, by the age of eleven days, begin to flap their wings, was simultaneously uplifting and terrifying. My last check of the night and my first of the morning for those thirteen days was a head count or a “noggin check”: two wee noggins in the nest? Yes? Whew.

My partner suggested I was overly invested in our little family, but he was not far behind. He moved a ladder onto the front porch in case Teddy or Alice fell and we needed to put them back. It was me, however, who took on the role of de facto front porch police: asking each new next-door guest to use the back door; shooing people away from the front walk; trying to limit conservations with well-meaning neighbours.

On one May day a woman and her two children stopped under our cherry tree, at the time in full, glorious bloom. They were posing for selfies and gathering up fallen petals. It was a sweet scene, until I noticed the children noticing our robins. They walked right up onto the porch and began pointing and yelling to their mother, at which point I should have smiled and said, “Ah, how sweet. Kids learning about nature.” Instead, I opened the front door and asked them to leave in a stern yet frantic tone. They tore off in terror and their mother looked appalled at my lack of indulgence. I felt so guilty that a minute later I chased after them down the street to apologize. Crazy obsessed robin lady frightens children — news at 11.

On another occasion, a kind neighbour came over to offer condolences, as one of my brothers had died of Covid-19 earlier that spring. One is loath to rush such a conversation, or to shush someone being so thoughtful, and I am proud to say I did neither. But boy, was I tempted.

Fledging day came for Teddy and Alice in late May. I saw both take the leap as their parents waited anxiously in our cherry tree. Teddy first and five hours later, a more zen Alice. Neither went far, as juvenile robins stay near their parents for the first two weeks, honing their flight and food-foraging skills.

We gave the porch a good cleaning and the nest stayed empty for most of June. In late June, Eleanor was back, doing something to the nest that looked like the robin version of vacuuming and re-padding. On Canada Day, at the start of a heat wave — you can bet we had the sprinklers on extra for Eleanor — she laid three eggs and the cycle began again. I felt like an old pro, or a second-time parent, with some understanding of what to expect, what markers to observe. We both worried less, though we still worried some.

As the babes hatched on Bastille Day, I decided to name them after French singers: Veronique (Sanson), Michel (Sardou) and Charles (Trenet). To be honest, I was never sure about their genders — I guessed, as with Teddy and Alice. With Eleanor and Franklin, I figured out who was who by their roles — Eleanor was mostly on the nest, Franklin swooping at our heads when he deemed us a menace to his family’s safety. On the trio’s last two nights in their home, they had gotten so large that Eleanor could not stretch herself on top of them, instead choosing to wedge herself carefully next to the nest and stand ready. How she managed I will never know, but she kept them safe until July 27th, when Veronique, Michel and Charles flew the coop, in that order, with Charles singing Que reste-t-il de nos amours… as he took flight.

[Michel in our backyard, July 2020. Photo credit: Rondi Adamson]
[Michel in our backyard, July 2020. Photo credit: Rondi Adamson]

There were no more clutches in 2020, but we saw our robins out and about until October. The nest now stands firm and empty, though as robins sometimes return to a good spot I remain hopeful that the spring and summer of 2021 will bring the return of Eleanor and Franklin.

Much can be projected onto the arrival of animals and birds into our lives — they are often seen as messengers or spirits. Emily Dickinson wrote that the robin is “a Gabriel, in humble circumstances.” Carolyn Kizer’s poem The Great Blue Heron, suggests a connection to the departed: “Heron, whose ghost are you?” There is a scene in the remarkable British series Wolf Hall in which Cardinal Wolsey, in an abject state over his failure to secure an annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon, is visited by Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell discovers that a black kitten has been born under Wolsey’s bed. While Wolsey sees the birth of a black cat as a bad omen, Cromwell sees it as a positive sign and holds the kitten up affectionately. “New life,” he says, “born under your bed!”

What did new life on our porch mean? I would love to think it was a visitation from a passed-away sibling or parent. My oldest brother was a birdwatcher, and after he died in 2012, I had a series of dreams about fiery, flashy, giant birds flying over his house. Given that I usually dream about finding things I want on sale or about going to Paris — I’m apparently irredeemably shallow — those dreams were conspicuous. But I do not think my brother would ever appear to me as something as quotidian as a robin.

I suspect our luck with robins was random. But watching them taught me something, or rather it reinforced something I already knew: if you cannot do something one day/month/year, you do it the next. Maybe all you need is a rainstorm at the right moment, something to give you the amount of mud you need.

Writer. Friend to the animals. Bylines @WSJ, TOStar, etc. and

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