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Last summer I lived in a locale ruled by a pitiless tyrant. It was not a land of barren deserts, weapons caches or religious extremists, but of lush lawns, flowering shrubs and leafy green trees. The location? My back yard in a suburban Milwaukee subdivision. However pastoral the setting, under the watchful eye of Turdus migratorius, the American robin, it became the equivalent of a police state. Nothing happened here without the knowledge and approval of the chief – the bird in chief.
For the most part robins are indistinguishable from one another. Their black head, plump red-orange breast and no-nonsense attitude present identical icons of rectitude. Robins can be found at all daylight hours patrolling suburban lawns with a devotion to duty bordering on the obsessive. Sure, you'll occasionally see them pause to nab a careless night crawler or insect, but their larger purpose seems to be keeping a close eye on the behavior of local children, pets and backyard grill chefs.
Last year's resident robin stood out visually from his brethren. The feathers on his upper left breast were missing or discolored, presumably from some encounter with another bird or perhaps a plate glass window. The bird carried his white splotch like a badge of courage pinned directly upon his heart. And that "honor" appeared to have gone straight to his head.
Battle scar on proud display, this robin took homeland security to a new level. He perched throughout the day on the highest point in the area – the furnace vent at the peak of my roof. From there he surveyed his domain. When another robin inadvertently strayed into the yard, he was on it in a flash! Swooping in a straight line, right at the trespasser – no evasive or tricky maneuver was even considered – he would drive it, squawking and cheeping, to the shelter of the hedge across the street. Then, with a look of disdain for the dispatched rival, the white-splotched robin would return to his commanding perch to recite his victory song: Cheed UP! Cheer-EE-o! Cheed-UP! Cheed UP! Cheer-EE-o! Cheed-UP! It was a pleasant little phrase at first, winsome and almost musical. And there was no questioning the earnest determination of the singer, but exertions notwithstanding, there really was not enough there to call it a melody.
No matter. This robin wasn't particularly sensitive to his critics, musical or otherwise. Nor did he limit the time or place of his singing. At any time of day, from any perch in the yard, he would stand and deliver, unshakable in his belief that through the alchemy of repetition, the base elements of this unpolished ditty were transmuted into pure operatic aria. Alas, he was mistaken. Despite his best efforts, I felt his singing never rose above the level of my fourth grade neighbor's violin practice.
Last May, our serviceberry tree bloomed on schedule. So by mid-June the branches of this small ornamental hung with hundreds of small, juicy red berries. In years past, the serviceberry had always served as a magnet to all manner of feathered species, resident and transient alike. Finches, blackbirds, sparrows and robins all would eat their fill in peace at this place of plenty.
Last year, the truce was shattered by boss robin. He spent untold hours guarding the berries and his dedication to the task was as remarkable as it was misguided.
One sun-drenched afternoon in June, I watched as two cedar waxwings flitted into the low canopy of the serviceberry. Small and satiny, waxwings wear a jaunty crest and a stylish mask that wouldn't look out of place at a Mardi Gras ball. Generally, they travel in small groups, gorging themselves on berries, all the while conversing back and forth with a quiet buzzing call.
These visitors didn't realize there'd been a change of management at the feeding spot. Security was quickly all over them. Soon they were dodging the fired-up robin and weaving with all the dexterity they could muster. Although the robin couldn't match the nimbleness of the smaller waxwings, he made up for it in dogged energy, harassing them without rest. The waxwings put up with it for a while, but once they realized that they weren't netting any berries during this song-and-dance routine, they abandoned the tree for greener pastures. For his part, the robin retired to his familiar high perch, preening and proclaiming his triumph to all within earshot.
Saved from perdition, the neighborhood birds soon found other yards to frequent. Ultimately, most of the berries went uneaten. By early July, they hung shriveled on the branches, testament to the tenacity and dedication of their unwavering feathered protector.
I slept better last summer, knowing the benevolent dictator was keeping my yard's affairs in order. Sometimes I would wake just before dawn as a freight train blew its whistle at a distant railroad crossing. Cars would rumble down the main road and lights across the neighborhood would begin to flicker to life. I'd pause between sleep and wakefulness in that drowsy state that's just conscious enough to be enjoyed. Near at hand from the dark recesses of the shrubs beneath my bedroom window would come that unmistakable, self-assured call, reeling me in from the edge of sleep. Cheed UP! Cheer-EE-o! Cheed-UP!
Mark Mamerow, a freelance writer and amateur naturalist, lives in Oak Creek.