Feathered guests put down roots in the front yard — then vanish


The two eggs were a lovely shade of blue: tending toward pale, but somehow still electric. Robin’s-egg blue, I guess you could call the color. This made sense. The eggs had been laid by a robin.

They were nestled — a perfect word — in a nest in the yew bush next to our front door. The nest was an impressive construction of straw and grass. I marveled at how dexterous birds are, able to transform what are basically lawn cuttings into amazing nurseries using little more than their pointy beaks. I have two hands and in my high school woodworking class could barely fashion a lamp stand.

This spring marked the second time a robin couple had decided to build a nest in this bush. My Lovely Wife and I weren’t sure that it was the same couple, though we liked to think so.

Last year, the robins were skittish. They got irritated whenever we entered or left our house, noisily exploding from the bush and alighting on nearby branches. When we’d interrupt the male hunting for worms in the front yard, he’d do that thing robins do: advance on stamping feet with a defiant look in his eyes that seemed to say, “Come any closer and I'll cut you.”

“Dude,” I wanted to say to the 6-inch-tall bird. “Do you know how ridiculous you look?”

This year, though, the robins were resigned to our presence — mellow, even. I saw them flying back and forth from the bush, strands of straw in their beaks. They wouldn’t stop their work even when I walked from the car to the door or paused to watch them at work.

Before long the nest was done, the eggs were laid.

We’re low-grade bird lovers, my wife and I. We have three backyard bird feeders that we can see from the kitchen — seed, thistle and suet — though we don’t always remember to keep them filled. It’s enjoyable watching the downy woodpeckers peck at the suet and the thistle-hungry goldfinches get progressively golder as the days lengthen.

Then there are the sparrows. If the meek shall inherit the earth, then someday sparrows will rule. They’re always getting pushed around by the other birds, but they appear content with their lot, settling for seed the other birds knock from the feeder. They are the only creatures for whom trickle-down economics seems to work.

Sparrows remind me of the proles in George Orwell’s “1984.” If there is hope, it lies in the sparrows. Sparrows could lead an avian revolution, but they don’t seem to know that.

Robins are so common in these parts that I’d never had much time for them — until the nest. It brought out my inner David Attenborough. I found that by positioning a stepladder in the basement, I could peer through a window directly at the nest. I took a few photos of the mother robin incubating her eggs and looked forward to the hatching.

Then the other day I went to sneak a peek. The nest was empty. The eggs were gone, not a single shard of eggshell anywhere. When I went outside to investigate, the adult robins didn’t bother chirping angrily at me. They, too, were nowhere to be seen.

It was as if the whole feathered family had been Raptured away.

What happened?

To find out, I called an expert at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Fittingly, her name is Robyn Bailey. (“I have special affinity for robins,” said Robyn, who is head of the lab’s NestWatch project. It was the first species she learned to identify as a student.)

Robyn’s guess was that another bird cleaned out the nest, probably a member of the corvid family: a blue jay, a common grackle or a crow.

“Avian predators are certainly known for leaving no trace,” she said. “They can pick up the eggs and fly away.”

Chipmunks also prey on eggs, she said. (Chipmunks!)

Without eggs, the adult robins didn’t need the nest. Its only purpose is to raise offspring.

Robyn said it’s likely the same robins had returned this spring. She also said I might see chicks yet. Robins can raise two and sometimes even three broods each year.

Once the female is finished laying a set of eggs, she settles into the nest and doesn’t leave until they hatch. It’s called “sitting tight.” The incubation period is 12 to 14 days. Then it’s another two weeks before the fledglings leave the nest.

I hope they'll come back. I’m happy to share my home with the robins. Of course, they probably think they’re sharing their home with me.

Twitter: @johnkelly

© 2014, The Washington Post

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