I’ve spent a lot of time at my kitchen sink the past few weeks.
You’d think I’m a woman who likes to wash dishes – which actually I do, if there aren’t too many. I appreciate the instant gratification of turning a dirty plate clean, the warmth of the water, the tickle of suds on my hands. But it’s what unfolded just beyond the window by the kitchen sink that captured my attention, a family reality show playing right there through the screen: The Robins Raise their Triplets.
I was a little slow tuning in. Mama Robin’s red breast caught my eye one morning as she pecked at their cozy little home, snuggled in a fork of a birch tree. I couldn’t see inside the nest, but once Ms. Robin finished her chores and settled in for a good long sit, I understood that she’d been rotating her eggs, keeping the babies inside from getting stuck to the shells, and also helping to ensure a uniform temperature, which she maintained with her own body heat, emanating from a patch on her belly gone bare for just this purpose.
From that moment on, I couldn’t catch enough of the drama: first the several days’ wait for the hatch, during which Mama Robin laid faithfully on the nest during sunshine and downpours, daylight and dark, leaving only occasionally to find some food. Papa Robin came by to visit, but mostly he busied himself in the yard, hopping around and looking proud already, his breast thrust out and head tilted upward as he kept neighborhood watch.
After several days of waiting, the big moment happened inside the walls of the nest. It was too high up for me to see the breakthroughs, but life became so hectic for the Parents Robin that I knew they had hatchlings. Now both of them were busily pecking at the yard, hunting, gathering, returning to the nest for a quick drop off before heading out to work again. A couple of days later, the little ones began to peep, and then their demands became visible as well as vocal. Three little carrot-colored throats extended upward over the nest rim, their gaping bills like freshly opened tulips undulating in the breeze. Their cry was unmistakable: “Feed me! Feed me!” And they were insatiable, eyeing the sky for a parent and springing into upward open-mouthed position when Mama or Papa (or sometimes both together) would swoop down on a nearby branch before delivering breakfast – or lunch, or dinner, or in between meal snacks. Earthworms appeared to be the edible of choice, although the occasional hapless grasshopper or other bug found itself staring down a throat of no return.
After a meal, the tired youngsters would flop their little heads on the side of the nest, sometimes staring straight at me, the down on their heads looking like double Mohawk haircuts glistening in the sun, their endlessly open mouths still making demands. Come to think of it, they must have been teenagers by now! They grew restless, preening and jostling and competing with each other for food. And they just plain grew. It had been barely more than a week when the first one flashed me a glimpse of bulging red breast. Their abode began to look more cramped than cozy.
And then one morning came the inevitable. I turned on my coffee pot, carried the cats’ bowls to the sink, looked out the window and the birch tree seemed suddenly, heartrendingly barren. Ms. and Mr. Robin had become empty nesters. I’d anticipated this moment, reminding myself that successful parenthood is all about raising the youngsters to spread their wings and make their own ways in the world. And I know they grow up fast, but still, I wasn’t quite ready for these kids to be gone. And, as in so many families, it turned out that one of the kids wasn’t either. I didn’t notice him until afternoon, huddled on an outermost branch several feet from the nest, wobbling a bit, tentatively flapping his wings every once in a while and then wobbling some more. Frankly, he looked too fat to fly. But he still had an eye out for handouts. A parent would wing in every so often and pop a worm into his mouth like a mom shoving a casserole into the oven and then rushing on to other chores. Could it be that part of the chores was checking on the other children? I’d read that training flights were part of the program before full independence from the parents, so I spent some time outside, watching Mama and Papa Robin pecking for food and then following their routes through the air. Sure enough: one fledgling had moved into a high rise, a towering birch in the side yard. Another had settled in the suburbs: a stately, plush fir on the edge of the woods out back.
I decided that I could not devote my days to wandering from tree to tree to check on progress, so I settled for watching the one triplet still outside the window. And sadly, I missed the moment of his final disappearance through my screen. A parent had just flown in for a feeding, which he’d gobbled with his usual gusto. I looked down for barely a few seconds and when I looked up, he was gone.
Will there be a sequel? I don’t know yet. Robins lay more than one clutch each summer and sometimes they reuse their nest. So I’ll stay tuned. Meantime, an inordinate amount of birdcalls has alerted me to a sparrow nest right outside my bathroom window. Oh dear. Maybe I’d better stock up on bubble bath.