Returning Robin Signals Spring Is Just Ahead

'Robin in Trumpetvine'

Robin in Trumpetvine by Julie Zickefoose. hide caption

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On this first day of spring, commentator Julie Zickefoose considers the robin — that red-breasted bird that signals the start of warmer weather ahead.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

On this, the first day of spring, commentator Julie Zickefoose considers the return of the robin.

Ms. JULIE ZICKEFOOSE reporting:

He was standing on a narrow strip of grass edged with cement at a gas station just off the interstate. All around were lawns and farm fields, but that tiny strip was all he apparently needed.

One robin doesn't make a spring, but he came close. His plump, ruddy breast sure dressed up a banal bit of landscaping.

I looked at a range map for the American robin the other day. It nests throughout North America, except the desert southwest, where the soil is too dry and sandy to support earthworms. This hearty, lovely bird has followed us, our well-watered lawns, our imported bluegrass, and earthworms, wherever we've gone. If you've got a lawnmower in your garage, you've got robins.

One day on the brink of spring I took my daily hike. There was a huge flock of migrating robins in the neighbor's pasture. They looked fine in the spring sunshine, standing erect with their wings hanging at their sides like crutches. One would cock its head, then make a swift stab into the softening earth, always coming up with a worm. I watched them for a while and then pushed on.

Coming down the hill into the woods, I came upon a young sharp-shinned hawk. He flew low and clumsily, the carcass of a largish bird dangling beneath him. I knelt and picked up some feathers and a leg. I scanned the underbrush and found the hawk bent over his kill, carrying away bites with twists of his small, sharp bill. He eyed me briefly, then decided to go on with his meal. I turned over the pale orange feathers in my hand. He had caught a hen robin.

Five, ten, maybe fifteen turquoise eggs that would never be laid, orange diamond mouths that will never pop open. It's good to be bigger than a sharp-shinned hawk.

I push on to a steep grassy hill where I like to pause and look over a deep valley. I catch the scent of maple flowers on the breeze, hear a robin's simple song, and the whole spring just rolls out behind my closed eyes like a carpet, and I am in my mind's eye, sleeveless and sweating and planting peas and beans and even tomatoes.

Life seems so full of possibility, drenched with anticipation of the magic to come. I'm young again, and nature is in her spring.

Somewhere in a tangle of grapevines, the sharp-shinned hawk is finishing his meal. He's full again. We're both glad the robins are back.

SIEGEL: Commentator Julie Zickefoose paints and writes about birds, and nature in general, in Whipple, Ohio.

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