[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
April 28 - May 5, 2000

[Tales From Tritown]

Robin 'hood

Hollis the Mountain Man tries bobbin' along

by Sally Cragin

Once Hollis the Mountain Man decided it would be easier to build another outbuilding rather than to take on an extensive spring cleaning, he found few friends available to help. Good thing he had a cinderblock ziggurat by the side of the Mountain Cabin -- now, he'd just need to level a patch of ground in the shady area and start stacking and mortaring. But, unfortunately, he neglected to store the bag of cement he bought last fall. Even a dry winter provides enough moisture for the mixture to solidify; and as he lifts the bag, he's brought to his knees.

"&*%$*," he mutters, and his oaths are answered by the reassuring warble of a robin. "Cheer-up," it admonishes him. "Che-e-e-r-up." Hollis looks skyward, and then the robin swooshes past him to the edge of Picture Pond. Lucky bird. He's got a mate that's busily building a nest. And, like Hollis, her first requirement is mortar: in this case, mud. Yet with an ongoing drought, mud is in short-supply at the Mountain Lair. Hollis shakes his head and turns over a cinderblock. The rectangular indentation reveals a fleshy pink worm retracting into the earth, and a snoozy sowbug. Hollis looks back at his yard. The robin is at a discreet distance, but Hollis can see the distinctive white spectacles and the bright red breast -- also the darker cap of the male species.

Hollis suddenly feels direly uninspired by the prospect of constructing his outbuilding. His plan was all in his head, anyway: 10 blocks by 10 blocks, stacked at least seven-feet high. All laid on a sheet of nylon tarp, with a sheet of corrugated fiberglass for a makeshift roof, nailed to a two-by-four laid across the top. It's the work of an afternoon, not counting errand-time. Just a few years ago, Hollis would have looked forward to this project as an occasion to bond with neighbor Hasky Tarbox, of the Tarbox Automotive clan ("Collisions? A specialty"). Even mad Lorencz the Hermit, bunkered part of the year in his abandoned school bus, and the other part in the All Faiths belfrey, would be welcome company. But Hasky has moved into an apartment with his wife, $erena the Waitress. And Lorencz is -- well, lord knows where. And Hollis drank the last of his homebrew on Easter. Lorencz only shows up when there is a fresh case percolating.

"Cheer-up!" sings the robin. "Che-e-er-up!" Hollis shrugs. "Easy for you to say," he retorts. "You've got to put your eggs somewhere, while I just have a pile of junk and no town dump to put it in." Indeed, Hollis is at a critical state. The time change and lengthening days is melting away his winter malaise; but he can tell that mood-wise, he's still in a downdraft. The evidence? A pile of empties on the porch, a heap of winterwear (flannel shirts too thin to mend, twill trousers grease-stained at the knees) on his unmade bed, and no enthusiasm for home improvement.

In fact, this particular lifestyle was a family tradition. As the years rolled along, successive generations of Mountain Men grew less and less ambitious, even as their skill with tools increased. When great-uncle Wilton (who perished in an Independence Day re-enactment) lived at the Mountain Lair, his finest addition was the mantle piece put together from burl maple. His saddest enhancement was the faux flagstone peelaway linoleum for the kitchen area. Now the squares were grit-separated and curled at the edges. Some four decades separated those two achievements, and Hollis keeps meaning to rip up the lino and sand and stain the wide oak floorboards. So far he hadn't. Perhaps part of his problem is living in the same place his forebears called home. No fresh starts, unlike those enjoyed by the robins. "Robin doesn't mind building the same nest over and over," Hollis tells himself, turning over more cinderblocks. "Long as there's enough grass to make a soft bed, that's enough fuss."

IN FACT, ROBINS are remarkably resourceful when it comes to making nests. Unlike phoebes, which rely on hidden places and tree cavities, the robin will build a nest almost anywhere in a tree and possibly two nests a year if there's a double brood. Grasses make a soft bed for the clutch of three to five eggs. Though attrition in the first year of life is a grave danger for robins, overall, we're seeing more of them than before. "In addition to what many now feel is a legitimate global warming and climate change, many robins are wintering further north," says Massachusetts Audubon Society ornithologist Wayne Peterson.

A number of factors -- including a varied diet -- make the robin ideally suited for a population expansion. In the warm weather, robins eat grubs, worms, and insects; during the winter, they're fruitivores. Some birds are driven south at the sign of the first snow, but the robin assesses the terrain and decides whether there's sufficient comestibles. "With all the suburban planting, crabapples, and small cherries, a lot of robins are able to find food where they couldn't before," says Peterson. "Because they change their diet, snow per se isn't a big deal. Extreme cold is another thing." So if the cedar trees or berry-bearing shrubs have a bumper crop, we're going to see more robins. This winter, one of Peterson's bird-watching contacts counted a surprising number in the heart of Boston. "One guy reported seeing 900 to 1500 robins in the Fenway."

Shorter migration patterns mean that robins don't have to increase their body fat to survive, and their relatively flexible diet means they can adapt to a variety of settings. You'll find robins in the woods (though they're somewhat shyer than their more urbanized counterparts) and in the suburban savannah environment (i.e., rolling lawns). "Just because they're common doesn't mean they're not interesting," says Peterson, who explains robins have a different pair-bonding impulse than larger birds that require more space. "Staying together is serendipitous," he explains. But if both robins are focused on the same breeding spot, they might return to the very same branch.

"CHE-E-ER-UP!" SINGS the robin to Hollis, who has turned over most of his cinderblocks. He's gone to the barn for a shovel and hoe to try and level the ground, and when he returns finds the robin inspecting the newly exposed earth rectangles. "It's not the early bird who gets the worm," thinks Hollis. "It's the bird who has time to hang out and see where the worms are." Shaking his head as if he's discovered another universal truth, Hollis leaves the robin to his foraging. Plenty of time to build a cinderblock shed after lunch. The robin cocks his head and hops to another square where it busily digs. "Spaghetti might be nice," he muses, watching the robin fly off.

Sally Cragin likes robins because you don't have to think about what their species name is when you see them.

Sally Cragin can be reached at aiolia@aol.com.

The Tales From Tritown archive

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