To this day, when I see a Robin--and I see them often--I think of my Italian grandmother. She's the one who taught me that if you sprinkle salt on a Robin's tail, you can catch it and make it your pet. Countless summer mornings, to get me out of the house she'd send me off with the salt shaker in one hand and a string leash in the other, watching from the back door as I chased those birds around.
I wasn't totally gullible, though. Uncle Gianni worked in the Detroit salt mines, and I asked him to bring me some chunks of rock salt. I figured, if table salt would work, so would a 1-inch rock of the stuff. He brought me a large block the size of his fist, and helped me break it up into projectile-size pieces. I know they would have worked, if I could just hit a darn bird. I never did.
Now, I don't know how my grandmother knew all these secrets of nature, but here are a few others about the Robin. First, they don't really return in the spring. Most of them have hung around through the winter, in the woods where they scrape up whatever they can find to survive. Then in the spring, when the ground thaws, they hit the lawns in a hungry frenzy, looking for worms. So it looks like they've "come back."
Second, they build really strong nests of mud and grass, and pairs often return to the same nest year after year. (This I have seen, not just heard from my grandmother.)
Finally, their song is simply beautiful. Walk anywhere in Chicago during this season, and you will hear the Robins perched high in the trees singing their hearts out. Even during the night, it's not unusual to hear them warbling at 3:00, 4:00 in the morning. The Beatles immortalized the Robin’s song on their White Album: “Blackbird singing in the dead of night….” You know the song, but you probably never realized it referred to a Robin. The bird that is known in Britain as the Common Blackbird is most closely related to the bird that we in the US call the American Robin. It's yet another reminder that we are two great nations separated by a common language. Anyway, it’s good that the Brits call the bird a Blackbird, because “Robin singing in the dead of night….” just does not sound quite as nice.
Now, next time you see or hear a Robin, think of my grandmother and her smartest grandson!
Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.