Spring RobinTitle: The Unnaturalist
Author: Guinotte Wise
Category: Nonfiction

I can remember the moment I stopped hunting forever. I was outside Omaha, great pheasant country then, in the 60's. I'd gone out alone, a friend having bailed due to another obligation, and, though I'd miss the company, I did like the fields and the woods on a fall day when winter was clearly setting in.  There was an edge to the cold, and a grey forbidding sky.

I still smoked back then, and I was in a small clearing by a deserted farmhouse; I laid my shotgun in a solid spot, fished out my cigarette pack, shook one out and lit it. It was the clink of the Zippo that spooked them out. Pheasants were everywhere, it seemed. As I recounted it later, there must have been fifty of them, and I see no reason to modify that figure, unbelievable as it seems, especially today.

I was transfixed, cigarette in one hand, lighter in the other, mouth undoubtedly open. The noise was like several clothes lines of wash in a fierce wind, and suddenly over. The birds, iridescent necks of blues and greens, flashed by, out of the weeds and brush in the farm yard, and I was struck by the beauty of them. And the question occurred: why shoot them? Followed by others: what's it prove? I know I can. But, man, they are beauties.

I sat on a log, opened my thermos of coffee, and poured in a splash of bourbon, something I did usually after hunting was done.

And, hunting was done. Was it ever. I drank and smoked and marveled at what I'd seen, and a few small snowflakes drifted into the farmyard.

By the time I'd finished the coffee toddy, the snowflakes were larger and I began to think of home and the fireplace, the latter unused since the year before. I hadn't fired a shot that day. The gun, a fine old Ithaca 16 gauge pump, hasn't been fired since, though I still own it. That was 45 years ago, maybe more.

Kansas spring, 1990 or so. One of my Australian Shepherds had something in her mouth, and she had that head-down, trying to be unnoticed look that led me to believe I should check into this. It turned out to be a robin chick, fallen from its nest I imagined. I opened the dog’s jaws, and she dropped the robin on the grass. It seemed unharmed.

I took it and looked around for a nest but found none. Nor was there a worried mom robin flying around trying to fool us with a damaged wing act. Nothing. I was stuck with this bird. I took it inside and put it in a laundry basket. I may have had a computer at the time, but Google wasn’t around yet, so I had to rely on lore that I had processed.

I knew baby robins had to be fed often. Water might be best administered from an eyedropper. Luckily I checked with a vet and found that’s a great way to drown a bird. Best to soak what it’s eating, and that’s all the moisture the little bird needs.

I fed the bird canned dogfood in little bits, some cut up grapes, a bug or two. It seemed to be a little eating machine. That night I put grass and sticks in an approximation of a nest in the laundry basket, surrounded with a towel, and expected to find a dead little carcass the next morning.

I found, instead, a healthy hungry baby bird, beak open. And vocal. I knew birds fed their young all day long, and it being a weekend, was able to accommodate the schedule. But come Monday I had to work and so did my wife. We both drove separate vehicles into the city, 50 miles north of us. I would have to take the bird with me to the advertising agency where I worked.

Soon, a routine was worked out. The bird was relatively silent if I put a towel over its laundry basket, so for the hour commute to and from work, it slept. Or whatever it did, it was quiet. Then, at work, in my office, it was fed during the day whenever it peeped. And it peeped a lot. Colleagues at the agency soon learned to be quiet around the sleeping bird, and I became known as The Birdman of Advertising.

As the robin gained weight and size, I realized it would need flying lessons and, possibly some other education that I was ill-equipped to provide it, so I called a wildlife bureau and asked the lady what to do with a growing robin. She was aghast and told me I had ruined the bird, that it had “imprinted” on me by now, as its surrogate parent, and it had no chance to resume a normal bird life in “the wild.”

She then told me this was illegal and carried a fine, asked for my name and address. I hung up, quietly.

The bird sat on my shoulder, on my head, on my finger. It was clear it wanted to be with me, to the consternation of my two Australian Shepherds, who were warned time and again to leave it alone. The whole thing was weighing on me. The robin needed schooling and it was only going to come from me.

It was waiting. It knew.

Early on a Saturday morning after its bird breakfast, the dogs, the bird and I went to the front yard for flying lessons. I tossed it in the air from a kneeling position so it wouldn’t fall from too great a height. It fluttered to the ground and walked around. I sighed. The dogs sat and waited. I tossed again. It fluttered again. Walked back to me. Then, the third time it actually flew to a nearby tree that leaned, landed about three feet up on its trunk. I carefully pried it loose, tossed again, and this time it sailed around the yard a bit, before it came back to me. I was holding my breath. With luck, this could be the end of my stewardship, my bird term.

I tossed it into the air again and it flew around. I left some grapes and dogfood on the propane tank, plucked the bird off my shoulder and set it down near the food, went inside. I looked out the window and, horrified, saw the bird walking around on the ground and the dogs in pounce mode. I ran outside, shouting, and the bird flew to me, landing on my head. How does one teach a bird survival techniques? Flying, obviously, wasn’t going to be a problem.

Fortunately, the bird found higher perches to its liking, the eaves, a tree branch. And cats didn’t frequent the area because of the dogs. So it was relatively safe for the weekend. My plan for Monday was to go to work, leave the bird outside, dogs inside, and put some food out for it. It would probably be gone when I got home.

I heard a shriek from my wife.

She was in a bikini, sunning on the deck, reading a book, and the bird had landed on her toe. The shriek didn’t dislodge the bird—maybe it thought it was a greeting. She was laughing now, looking at our robin. The bird wanted to be near its folks. It walked over to the dogs’ water dish, took a drink, a little fluttering dip as well.

Robins often congregated at the end of our drive, possibly for the gravel, and to dust themselves. I took her out there (we had determined her to be female), set her down on the gravel where she pecked around, and I backed away, quietly. A couple of robins landed near her, and she walked toward them. They flew away. That happened again, later. I felt as though I’d sent my kid off to the school bus and she’d been ignored, ostracized by the others at the bus stop.

The robin and I had developed our own language.  I could summon her with a sort of high-pitched kissing sound that I used with the horses to get them to move. When I made the sound, she came to me, lighting on my head or shoulder. I made the sound now and she came. I wanted her to know that she would soon be one of the gang, it would all work out.

Monday morning, I laid out some food on the propane tank, said goodbye to the robin, and headed for work. I felt a mixture of liberation and guilt that day, but lost myself in the work and the day passed soon enough. I didn’t think about the bird much on the way home, distracted by city traffic, the radio and thoughts of what I was doing at work. When I pulled in the driveway, there she was, on the eave of the front porch.

As I got out of the truck she flew to me and beat her wings, hovering about my face, then landed on my shoulder. I put my hand near her and she perched on my finger. I got a lump in my throat thinking of her there at home all day, not knowing what had happened to her…parents. Maybe the bird nazi at the wildlife office was right. Maybe I would have this robin for the duration. How does one house-train a bird in the winter time? I could see newspapers covering everything all over the house.

I needn’t have worried, but as the days progressed, though she became more and more robinlike, she still waited and greeted me and my wife when we’d come home. She flew beautifully now. She would circle us, then execute a neat landing on an outstretched hand. The weekends were special times; the dogs enjoyed our company on these R&R days and so did the robin. We never named her, curiously, but she was a part of the family. When I’d be outside and wouldn’t see her, I’d make the sound and there she’d be. She was fending for herself now, but I still left the occasional grape or tidbit out there for her. And she was associating with the other robins out on the gravel drive.

Well before summer was over, but on a day when the first hint of a northwest breeze alerted the senses that fall would come one day, I saw her on the fence with another, brighter red-breasted, robin. The brighter colored ones are males.

As I approached, she flew toward me. I made my noise and she flew close but didn’t land. The other bird, her mate I soon determined, was obviously alarmed. He left the fence and flew erratically, making sounds that were distressed and she flew back to him. Something passed between them, and she once more flew to me, circled me fairly closely, rejoined him and they flew away together.

I knew I was losing her, but I also knew she was okay. We had imprinted on her all right, we would always be her parents, but now she was on the way to a family of her own. She wasn’t attracted to other humans so that wouldn’t be a problem. And her new mate would lead her to more birdlike behavior, that was obvious. Later I told my wife our bird had found her mate and was most probably gone.

I told her in a casual way, fairly quickly, because I had to turn away to hide an emotion that has returned to me now as I think of that moment.

I’d see the robins each spring, dusting in the gravel, and used to wonder if she was among them.  Then I checked an ornithology site and was a bit startled to find that the life span of an average robin is a little over a year.  I hope she did better than that.

It occurs to me as I glance at the Ithaca above my desk that a lot of pheasants and quail beat the odds on life span when I was the determining factor.  I liked bird hunting.  I just wasn’t very good at it. Unmolested robins with human parents should get two years just for getting through it.

Guinotte Wise has been a Creative Director at VML in Kansas City for the last 17 years, a group CD before that in Los Angeles at Saatchi & Saatchi.  Semi-retired, he’s a sculptor, welded steel his material.  His work can be seen at http://www.wisesculpture.com, he lives in rural Kansas with his wife.