Every spring, as I watch birds sweep across our lawn looking for nesting materials, I'm reminded of the time we raised some robins in our living room. Well, almost in our living room. It happened at our first house, the one with eight big old-fashioned windows across the front, three of which were brushed by the branches of an evergreen tree.
One spring morning, I walked into the room to see a robin moving about in the branches of that evergreen, so close to the window I could hear the beating of her wings. It wasn't hard to guess she was sizing up the place for a residence. I moved away quickly, hoping I hadn't startled her. But she seemed to know just what she was looking for, and it was a home with a view - right into our living room.
The children were overjoyed to think they could watch a family of birds hatch before their eyes, and for a time these self-appointed guardians almost let their sense of responsibility get out of hand. They tiptoed through the room, trying to decide, in screechy whispers, whether it would be better to draw the curtains to give the birds more privacy, or to leave the curtains open to give themselves a front-row view.
On cleaning day, Beatrice decided it wouldn't be wise to wash the windows, and we all agreed. (I suspect she was most grateful to the robins.) The Cub Scouts were not allowed to meet on the porch, as they had been in the habit of doing. Nor were they allowed to make any noise, as they were also in the habit of doing. They were herded into the basement recreation room with no explanation - my son himself agreeing it would never do to tell nine young boys our secret.
All of our normal household activities came to a halt while we sat around in concealed lookouts, watching two energetic birds gather soft mud and little twigs and weave them together to form the smooth bowl of their nest. When the phone rang, no one stirred, and for once I was able to answer it. It was a good thing the nest was finished in two days.
Momma Robin had her own ideas about how the nest should look, and she did most of the building. Poppa perched nearby, singing cheerily-cheerily-cheerily as encouragement, cementing the bond between them.
After several days passed with no sign of the robins, we despaired, thinking we had done something to discourage them. Then we found in a bird book that robins go away on a "honeymoon" when their nest is finished. And so it was that in mid-April they were back, along with a blanket of snow and near-freezing temperatures. We had given up hope of seeing them again, until I heard a flutter at the window and looked up to see Momma Robin scratching the snow off the nest, obviously undisturbed about the situation.
Hope and joy soared for the bird-watchers, like kites on a windy day. I joined in their happiness.
We took up our sly vigil again, watching the birds take turns sitting on two blue eggs. Poppa did the grocery shopping, bringing worms to feed Momma, so that she wouldn't leave the nest uncovered too long.
At the end of the two-week incubation period, we became bolder, even lining up our noses against the window waiting to see the first egg hatch. We actually saw it happen! The little egg was standing on end, trembling a little, then it burst open and a tiny ball of fluff rolled out. It barely moved and was covered with a haze of down.
The next day the second baby appeared, and the parents were in a constant race for worms. After only two days, their little necks were stretching out inches from the nest, beaks open, weaving around like steam shovels on the end of a crane.
A week later they were covered with feathers and looked like fat balloons bulging over the edge of the nest. They were obviously enjoying our company like showoffs. And our Dave declared that they had a look that said: "Are we having those worms again tonight?"
Then came the night of the tornado. We didn't know it was coming, or we wouldn't have stayed on the porch, as we did, trying to hold an umbrella over the nest!
It started out like any other rainstorm, and we went out to smell the fresh, cool air. It was exciting to watch the terrific display of lightning - jagged arms of dazzling light, with long, sharp fingers piercing holes in the dense blackness of clouds, followed quickly by loud claps of thunder.
When the gutters began to overflow and silver sheets of water slid over the evergreen, we remembered the robins! They were huddling together, wings outspread in an effort to shield their young.
The children ran to find the biggest umbrella we owned, then took turns getting soaked to the skin trying to hold it over the tree.
We laughed about it later, when it occurred to us that the umbrella probably frightened the birds more than the storm did. In the morning the nest was still safe and dry, and the babies no worse for the scare.
In mid-May, just a month from when it all began, the fledglings left the nest. Our children lamented the fact that raising a family seemed such a short-term affair; but this, I decided, was clearly a child's point of view. It took another week of parental instruction before the young robins could "listen" for a worm and dig for themselves. This was their diploma.
I remember this experience with such pleasure because for a few weeks it brought us together, in our free time, to share the excitement of a secret. Household tasks were secondary. Nothing was more important than being together, watching something in which we had a mutual interest. We learned so many things we've never forgotten. It was the sort of thing I'd wanted to do for years, but had kept putting off for a more convenient time. Then two robins came along and provided the occasion.
With a deep sigh of contentment, we went our separate ways again, but closer than we had been before. Now my family's favorite remark is that the business of lying around watching nature is strictly for the birds.
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