Rick's Writing

The Mystery of Robin Romance

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We’re all aware that robins are good baby makers. Their reproductive skills have resulted in millions of offspring, digging worms in back yards everywhere.
But how do they approach the subtleties of courtship? How do they hook up in pairs? Do males jump about, singing madly for females? Do they zoom through the sky, carving huge figure-eights, while prospective mates watch from the ground?
They do not, or someone would have noticed. Robins, after all, are everywhere, lending themselves to casual and intense observation. Yet, despite their widespread status, robins have not exhibited any obvious displays associated with courtship behavior.
How a male chooses a female, and vice versa, remains subject to speculation. All most of us know is that, one late March or early April morning, a robin shows up in the yard and starts singing. A few days later, another robin shows up and appears to enjoy, or at least tolerate, the serenade. Over the next several weeks, the repeated presence of this twosome indicates they have formed a pair bond.
No wild courtship flights, no beating of breasts, no fanning of feathers or singing all night by the light of the moon.

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Somehow, without fanfare, robins choose one another. Mysterious business – and challenging for robin watchers in need of definitive answers.
Being one of those people, I plan on becoming a serious robin watcher during the next several weeks. I will creep around corners. I will watch from behind half-drawn curtains.
I’d like to think that I, or perhaps you, could detect some obscure little movement – the equivalent of two robin beaks touching in passing – that would indicate a female robin’s willingness to accept a male robin as her mate.
I know such a discovery won’t take place without dedicated observation. To make the task easier, I’ve made note of several behavioral quirks in robins that are not linked to courtship behavior.
Researchers already know what these actions mean, and, for robins, they don’t mean let’s mate.
First, there’s the tail flick. When a robin repeatedly flicks its tail, and accompanies this flicking with a call that sounds like tut, tut, that means danger, or some other troubling presence, lurks near.
Then, there’s the tail lift. If you see a robin lift its tail to a 45-degree angle, that bird almost always will be staring at another robin – an intruder it’s about to attack.

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The breast puff? The attack run? These also are territory-related. Sometimes, to assert a territorial claim, a robin will puff out its breast feathers or flatten its body in a horizontal plane before chasing an intruder away.
The wing droop? Forget it. That, too, means aggression. Just before or after an aggressive encounter, a robin sometimes will lower its wing tips until they nearly drag on the ground.
These are a few of the behavioral ticks we will not focus on in our study. However, should any of you notice a wink or a nod, please e-mail with ample details.

-----------------------------------------The Winter-Sharp Eyes of a Hawk

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 We once had useful noses but not anymore. They’ve become obsolete, optional appendages.
During pre-historic times, the nose served as survival tool. People needed one then: for scenting a sabre-toothed tiger about to attack; for sniffing out tubers and other edibles; for smelling cave smoke and knowing braised herbivore was for dinner and not tree roots again.


Who needs a nose these days? They still hold up eyeglasses, but look at the downside: pollen-clogged sinuses, nasal pathways filled with exhaust. Everything in the supermarket seems cellophane wrapped, so we can’t sniff it if we want to. The nose has been desensitized. It can barely smell the coffee, let alone a bed of wild leaks in the forest.

Hawks on the Prowl

Fortunately, our eyesight hasn’t suffered so badly. With the advent of binoculars, we’ve become hawks on the prowl. Our magnified gaze counts buck antler points a corn field away. We pull specks from the clouds and confirm they’re bald eagles. We can see farther, probe deeper, learn more than humans before us.
With or without optic aids, the human eye remains an unparalleled sensor. The slightest motion is detected, the tiniest detail blotted by the brain.

Focus vs. Distraction

Visual acuity is not a God-given right, however. If one is distracted – i.e., devoid of visual purpose and without mental focus – one peers through an opaque lens. The brain must be focused for eyes to see.
I would like to focus on walking in winter. If you look for signs of life on winters walks, you’ll find them everywhere. You must concentrate, however. You must give your eyes a chance.

On Today’s Menu

Let’s start with squirrels. The next time you’re out, look up for their nests in the trees. Gray squirrels build basketball-sized nests of leaves and twigs. Red squirrel nests are constructed of grass and shredded bark, so they appear a bit finer. Flying squirrels sometimes cover over a bird’s nest with downy plant fibers, then live beneath the dome. White-footed mice do this, too.
What are squirrels eating these short winter days? Check the tips of red maples. Gray squirrels nip them off for food, as do hungry white-tailed deer. Red squirrels prefer the seeds inside spruce cones.

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Often they’ll cut the cones down by nipping the twigs that hold them. These cones tumble to the ground, whereupon the squirrels sever them from the twigs and carry them away. Scores of nipped twigs will litter the ground under trees the red squirrels have plundered. Will you notice the debris when you walk underneath? Will you scour the surrounding woods for a red squirrel’s dining platform: that log or stump piled high with discarded spruce cone scales?

Squirrels seek out nutmeats, too, as do other foragers. Flying squirrels chew small round holes in hickory nut shells. Gray squirrels tackle black walnuts and handle them with ease.
On a smaller scale, sharp-eyed observers can find black cherry pits gnawed through by deer mice. These pits are the size of orange seeds. The holes chewed through them are half that size. The seeds inside are smaller still, but they’re gone, devoured, dispatched.

Buck Rubs Await

Other sights await on winter walks. Look for buck antler rubs on striped maple trees; vole runways through matted meadow grass; red flecks on snow under sumacs, where late winter’s earliest robins have scattered fuzzy fruits from above. You might find mink tracks by a half-frozen stream. You might find a pile of feathers. Was it grouse on the menu – a goshawk’s most recent repast?
You might even peel back a strip of tree bark to discover a paper wasp queen, curled in hibernation. She’ll be well tucked away, but with luck and perseverance, you’ll find her. Use your winter-sharp eyes like a hawk.


Call of the Wild 

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I remember those days in the office quite well: a cinderblock room with no windows. Add to that, all the blocks had been painted a dull restroom beige. My computer fan whirred; nature seemed all but banished. I yearned for the call of the wild.
It was out there, I knew that – a wind ripping through naked tree tops and deep hemlock woods. If I stood in those woods, bundled up, and just listened, that wind would call out and entreat me to follow its course.
That day it was the wind, but by nightfall an owl might be calling. Would I hear and recoil, or be drawn to the forest for more?
The call of the wild instills fear, wanderlust and a host of conflicting emotions. Sometimes we hear it and want to be wild like the loons and gray wolves of the Arctic. Sometimes, we fear wildness, knowing how far we have strayed from its essence and how we can never go back.
One night in the desert I heard coyotes in full serenade. They were close, yapping loudly, then yowling together, their voices entwined in an off-chorus tribute to Sioux chiefs and coyotes in heaven. I lay in a tent, bathed in moonlight, wide-eyed, listening.
They were just over there, through a draw filled with sage and scrub  junipers dotting its flanks. Part of me felt sore afraid, needlessly. They would never attack, yet I felt vulnerable, as if I were the student and they were the teachers; as if here they knew all – they epitomized wildness – and I knew just domestic ways.
I wanted to be a coyote that night – to howl and not know why; to be part of the earth without having to try so darn hard. Some would say that’s the call of the wild in a nutshell: an essence – an unfettered, uncluttered, uncivilized presence – that says, “This is wild, and no contact with humans can change it.”
It needn’t be loons, wolves or coyotes, this call. It can be less imposing, like rain on a tent or the crackling flames from a fire.
I’ve heard the call hundreds of times this past year. Waterfalls thundered and I heard the call.

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Chickadees peeped and I knew they would never be tamed.

I saw wood ducks dip toward a marsh, and I heard it. Wings cleaved the sky, making winnowing sickle-like sounds.
Other wings called me to wildness as well: the thunder of 500 geese lifting off, or thousands of blackbirds erupting as one from a corn stubble field in November.
Once, while I stood at the edge of a brook, a great blue heron swept downstream and landed not 10 paces from me. I blinked and it saw me. Two huge wings unfolded. I then heard the call of the wild as they beat for the sky.
When a tree sparrow sang out in musical tones, I heard the call, too, from a traveler blown south by hunger and instinctive yearnings, When golden-crowned kinglets made whispers in hemlocks, I heard the same call, somewhat fainter but no less alive.
I heard it when otters crunched down on a fish and when beaver tails slapped on the water. I heard it when red-tailed hawks cried overhead and when great horned owls courted each other.

Last autumn a deer ran away and I heard it: crashing through some thick brush and then fording a stream. I heard its legs thrashing through water as high as its belly.
The call of the wild – can you hear it? If so, it will help keep you whole when more civilized calls make you wish you could howl like a wolf.