The robin I’m watching looks fat enough to have spent the winter on a Carnival cruise but his facial expression — if robin’s have facial expressions — appears distraught. He’s up to his knees — if robin’s have knees — in a couple of inches of newly fallen snow, gently resting on the almost two feet of snow that’s been here since mid-December and remains as reluctant to leave as the winter that came calling the better part of six months ago.
This particular bird and from what I can tell, about 20 of his peep group, departed their cushy southern enclaves based on the calendar rather than the thermometer and now find themselves paying the price. Early birds though they may be, worms appear in short supply this day and even this southern-facing, Marshfield hillside offers meager sustenance.
I think they regret having made the trip but I don’t know if robins have regrets. Maybe — like people — they just engage in poorly thought out activities and get killed in the process like the rhino poacher who recently earned a Darwin Award by getting trampled by an elephant and then devoured by lions. Although the robins’ dilemma was less dramatic, unless the worm buffet opened relatively soon, they’re demise might quickly be in the offing.
Robins generally sing upon arrival at their summer breeding grounds. So I figured the deafening silence of this flock was either because they were only in mid-migration, intending on flying amorously further north, or more likely, like the rest of us: they were again — for the 59th year in a row — tripped up by their expectations of April in Vermont. As we learn year after year, and promptly forget, April’s connotation usually means something very different up here than it does most other places.
Case in point: When I triumphantly tossed my Yak Tracks into the corner of the mudroom two or so weeks ago, it was with such palpable finality that I virtually danced through my first ice-free walk since October, dodging frost heaves, ruts and puddles under clear skies and windless 40 degree temperatures. My irrational exuberance quickly disintegrates. It’s now mid-month but it looks and feels as though it’s still February.
Like the robins, I was seduced by a mesmerizing tease of sunlight and bought off cheaply by a warmish afternoon. A hundred yards down the road I realize vibram soles provide insufficient friction on the new, tire-smoothed, moisture laden snow. Subjugation to April complete, I despondently make my way back home, to the supplementary traction still lying, tangled in the mudroom. It may be far better than me lying on the side of the road, but still feels like failure.
Chastened but more stable, I only have to walk a mile or so to find a flock of North Calais robins cowering on a patch of open ground like wildebeests converging on the only watering hole in the desert. I try not to take too much solace in their arrival, which is fairly easy considering the wind driven, taco-chip-sized snowflakes splatting on my face, but it provides a ray of cynical hope nonetheless. And I do begin to notice other feathery things darting in and out of view. The stoic chickadees — “generalists” as one of my birder friends once opined — who, undaunted by sub zero temperatures, hang around the feeder all winter long.
On my return trip there seem to be more robins than there were, probably illusory since the blinding squall is significantly eradicating their patch of open ground. I learn later that they’re not the stone cold carnivores I presumed them to be. Like many other birds, robins are opportunistic foodies, substituting seeds and berries if earthworms, grubs, beetles or other insects are unavailable. In fact, their dietary flexibility is part of the reason they’re here, allowing them to winter much further north than other birds in the Thrush family.
Lust is the big motivating factor in their seemingly feckless early migration back into winter’s grip since — upon arrival — a young robin’s fancy turns toward making chicks, which eventually results in making even more chicks: three broods of three to five eggs each between April and July, with an average of only 25 percent surviving through the first year. But fear not, with an estimated 300 million in the United States alone, robins are one of the most abundant species in North America.
Like the robins, we too will endure, despite the fact that April, our unpredictable, longtime enigma will continue to delight and dismay in equal measure. But generally, there’s one pretty sure bet that all our April expectations will be fulfilled. It’s called May.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.