The Hometown Weekly for all your latest local news and updates! 25 Years of Delivering Your Hometown News!  

Backyard files: robins in the snow

By Stephen Press
Hometown Weekly Editor

Years ago, when I was a small child, I spent my weekdays alongside my maternal grandmother, Ma, who watched me while my parents worked. In retrospect, those days had an outsized influence on me - it was in Ma’s kitchen where I first would develop a love for Italian cooking, discover the inklings of a musical inclination, and find myself staring attentively out the window at feathered backyard visitors.

Ma enjoyed watching all the birds, but she was always especially keen to point out the fat American robins, pulling worms out of her lawn in the sunnier, nicer months. She impressed upon me, in words and even nursery rhymes, the robin’s unique personality. It was the inquisitive visitor who’d hop along, ever-so-seriously cocking its head every few feet or so in its studious search of a subterranean meal. Soon, as we spent more time watching them, I began to share in Ma’s enthusiasm for the birds.

As I got older, our enthusiasm turned into friendly competition. Each year, as March grew milder and the snow melted, we would keep our eyes out for the first robin of the season, returning to its summer New England breeding grounds. Whoever spotted it first would have the pleasure of calling the other - and being declared the “winner” of the year’s “contest.” Years would come and go; the robins, for Ma and me, became as much a harbinger of springtime as crocuses, the Sox, or Easter.

It would continue this way until, a couple months before my eleventh or twelfth birthday, I saw something that shook me to the core: an American robin, perched on a fencepost, against a backdrop of eight inches of snow. It caught me completely off guard and filled me with what I could almost describe as an awkward form of guilt, like a child who’d accidentally stumbled upon a hidden birthday present weeks before the big day.

Surely, this didn’t count. It was wholly unnatural. I couldn’t ring Ma in the middle of February and announce that I’d seen the first robin of the season; the season hadn’t even arrived yet. This confused individual must have gotten tired of the snowbird life and returned early.

Of all the birds I’ve written about in Hometown Weekly, the American robin may be the most ubiquitous. Aside from the fact that their orange-red breast gives them away, there are an abundant number of them in Hometown Weekly’s communities - you can find them everywhere, from rural idylls to suburban developments. Generally speaking, if you can locate a lawn, a robin cannot be far. It’s not just here that they abound, though - there are estimated to be more robins in North America (370 million, in fact) than any other bird.

Members of the thrush family - which includes the Eastern bluebird - robins largely feed on insects, grubs, and berries, with fledglings preferring softer fare. This would help explain the birds’ penchant for posing on our lawns with mouthfuls of earthworms, especially as they raise their broods. Their breeding season lasts from about April to July. If you’ve ever had the experience of finding an empty blue eggshell on the ground while mowing the lawn, there’s a very good chance it came from a nearby robin’s nest. Juveniles - easily identified by the dark speckles on their not-yet-red breasts - leave the nest within a couple weeks of hatching, though can often be seen begging for food from their parents after fledging.

In more northern latitudes, the birds are migratory. They produce two or three broods during the breeding season, then typically vacate around August or September for their wintering grounds, returning only when the weather returns to a level of palatability.

But what of that February trailblazer, framing himself on the fencepost against the snow?

I couldn’t have known it then, but it turns out that I was the confused one, not the robin. Over the next years, I saw more and more robins in the snow until finally, they appeared never to have left. The migratory robins that had been coming and going throughout Ma’s days had apparently decided to remain here, year-round. With them, sadly, went our yearly competition. Neither Ma nor I said anything about it. Perhaps we were waiting for things to right themselves on their own.

Years later, well after the birds had decided to become permanent New Englanders, Ma finally broached the topic with me over lunch. “Imagine that, Steve,” she said, wistfully staring out her back window at a couple robins in the middle of January. “They just don’t leave anymore.” Neither of us had any answers, just an overwhelming sense that something was wrong.

It has been several winters without Ma now. The robins, apparently comfortable with their new post-autumnal arrangements, have made themselves more and more visible. On the coldest days of the year - those “ten degrees with gusting wind” jobs - they are particularly eager to show themselves, as though they know how uncomfortable their presence still makes me.

There are some things that seem so unnatural, you wonder if they’ll ever feel right - like wearing a mask to the supermarket, or holidays without Ma, or robins in the snow.

Comments are closed.