Starting life on a windowsill

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

A few years ago, I saw an interesting sight as I walked down the stairs of our house.

We have a little landing just a few steps from the bottom. It was early spring. The robins were back and active. The blooming of flowers, the blossoming of our forsythia, the sound of lawnmowers throughout the neighborhood and the arrival of robins all heralded the end of winter and the new life that comes with spring.

At the little landing, there is a small 8-sided window on the exterior wall. A robin was busy building a nest on the windowsill.

She was working hard. If I stood perfectly still, she weaved pieces of dead grass, sticks and straw into a perfect little nest. As soon as I moved, she flew away. Over a period of several days, she used the nest-building plans that were stored in her little birdbrain and built the perfect robin’s nest on our windowsill.

About a week later, eggs started to appear. She laid one egg every day until there were three baby-blue eggs in the nest. A short while later, the robin chicks hatched. A few weeks later they flew away.

The nest sat empty. I thought about throwing it away, but hoped that momma-bird might come back the following year for round-two of the Robin Riley Family adventure.

That didn’t happen. The nest sat empty the following spring and summer. One early autumn night a strong wind blew the nest from the window onto the porch, so I simply swept it away. But that cycle of life had certainly been fun to watch.

Seeing our robin in our window everyday reminded me of an old, old tale about why the robin had a red breast. This tale dates back to the birth of Christ.

According to this Christmas legend, that night in Bethlehem was extremely cold.

“A cold breeze blew constantly into the stable where Mother Mary lay with her infant, Jesus. The fire in the stable, the only source of heat for the baby, was about to go out and all Mary could do was call out to the surrounding animals for help. She asked the cow, but he was sleeping. The donkey was too tired to help. The sheep were snuggled down within their warm wool coats and would not wake up to help.

All the animals in the stable were either of no use or just refused to help.

Suddenly, Mary heard the flapping of wings. A simple robin had heard Mother Mary’s cry for help and had flown to the stable to help her. The robin flapped his wings at the dying embers until the fire was rekindled and became bright red. He fanned the flame continuously. He flapped his wings hard so that the fire never went out. He was able to keep Mother Mary and the baby warm.

To ensure that the fire stayed alive, the robin used his beak and dropped some dry sticks onto the fire. This caused the flame to rise abruptly, and it burnt the robin’s breast. Despite the burns that he received, the robin never stopped fanning the flame. His goal was to keep the flame alive so the infant would be kept warm and comfortable while it slept in the manger.

Mother Mary heartily thanked the robin for his heroic efforts. Mary looked at the burnt and charred feathers on the robin’s red breast. She tenderly blessed the robin for keeping the baby Jesus warm and safe. She blessed him for his deeds of valor and selflessness.”

When I think about “Noble Birds,” I usually think about bald eagles, owls, or hawks – not robins. When I think about the birds that bring comfort to people at the end of a long, cold winter, I do think about the robin. It is heartwarming and uplifting to see the robins come home every spring.

Now, this year, it is heartwarming to see that our windowsill once more holds a robin’s nest. Her nest was built just a few weeks ago.

Last week — the week of Easter — she filled the nest with three beautiful, little blue eggs. Almost every time I walk by, she is sitting on her eggs. As soon as she sees me … off she flies.

In a few weeks, those three little eggs will hatch. Those baby robins will squirm and wiggle with their beaks wide open, waiting for mamma to fill them with fresh worms. There must be a tremendous amount of nutrients in earthworms because within a few more weeks those robin chicks will take wing and fly.

Will they ever come back and visit? I like to think they will.

Soon, I will be able to sit on our front porch and watch them peck around the yard looking for food. It is amazing to watch them turn their heads from side-to-side as they listen and look for signs of worm movements just below the surface. They will hungerly gobble more worms and grubs. They will grow quickly.

Soon, it will be hard to tell the baby birds from the adults.

If someone really wants to pack on some weight and grow quickly, I might recommend a diet rich in earthworms. It sure works for the robins.

I am glad to see them back, building nests, pecking for worms and welcoming the return of spring.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist