Friday, April 11, 2008

Robbie Robin

Robins have been one of my favorite birds since I was a little girl. Each spring I'm reminded of something that would forever impact my understanding of environmental responsibility. Long before it was hip to be "green," decades before global warming was part of our everyday vocabularies, Robbie Robin was an early and dramatic lesson in my little-girl world. He was my awakening from environmental unconsciousness. I still get teary-eyed remembering him.

My mom found Robbie one spring when I was six years old. She had mixed feelings about interfering with nature. But in our neighborhood most house cats were indoor/outdoor cats, and baby birds fallen from their nests whose parents weren't nearby stood little chance of surviving more than an hour or two.

There were lots of mature trees in our north-side neighborhood, and no shortage of babies fallen from their nests. We children whose eyes were still so full of wonder and so close to the ground found naked babies barely breathing or already dead and carefully scooped them up to bring home to our mom. We hoped for miracles. At least if they died which they usually did, we'd given them a safe, warm, peaceful place to die instead of in the jaws of a cat. Mom would help us find a little box when we had the solemn duty of burying the casualties.

Robbie was one of the few who'd had a chance, and our family again set about the serious business of baby bird rescue and rehabilitation. Mom called the Little Red Schoolhouse nature center for advice on how to take care of our new baby. We fed him raw hamburger, cut-up worms, mashed boiled eggs, and water from an eyedropper. Mom made him a soft, warm fabric nest in a box where he mostly slept when he wasn't hungry.

After two months of tender care, Robbie's flight feathers were growing longer and our parents decided it was time for him to get used to the outdoors. What better place could there have been than our landlord's fenced vegetable garden? It was a confined space where Robbie could exercise his wings. He loved it in there. He hopped all around and pecked at the soil, often still wet from dew or an early-morning sprinkling. He loved it in the garden and the damp soil was perfect for learning to hunt worms.

We don't know exactly when he started to get sick. The first sign was his legs becoming first pink, later red and swollen. He didn't seem like himself. Mom called the Little Red Schoolhouse for advice. After she got off the phone and gave us the devastating news, she had to deal with not only her own heartbreak, but the sorrow of her five children as well.

It seemed our beloved Robbie had been poisoned by the chemicals our landlord was spraying on his garden. We didn't know he was spraying, and he didn't think it was important enough to mention when he gave permission for Robbie to play in the garden. I remember how angry and sad we were. Who sprays poison on a backyard garden where children are playing??? It was then I first remember my parents talking about one day having a home and yard of our own.

Robbie's condition worsened. His head got wobbly. He couldn't stand up. Finally, he couldn't eat anymore. He lived only a week after we noticed his legs. We made him as comfortable as we could. Even the Little Red Schoolhouse couldn't help us save him. We buried him in the backyard in the nesting box we'd spent many vigilant hours lovingly guarding.

Losing Robbie broke my 6-year-old heart, made me angry, and awoke my environmental consciousness. Four years later my parents made their home-owning dreams come true. We remembered Robbie as we planted and tended our own garden and our mom taught us the joys of organic gardening. I'll never forget, and am forever grateful for the lessons learned from Robbie Robin.


  1. What a bittersweet story. It's even more touching since I too remember trying to save an older robin as a child. Good for your parents for teaching you the joys and benefits of organic gardening. I'm often surprised how even today people scoff at my environmentally-sound practices. May my son grow up to see it become the norm rather than the exception.

  2. Great story, Lintys. I always thought the Robins flew South and then returned to announce Spring but I read in the Tribune the other day that a good number of Robins over-winter here now. Boy was I surprised !

  3. Thats so heartbreaking. I've got tears in my eyes. I really wish the horticultural industry would get away from using these harmful chemicals. It's just so horrid the effects they have on living creatures.

  4. Melanthia, I'm very grateful to my mom for all she taught us, including how to garden, and how to do it organically. She's still gardening, and still doing it organically.

    I can totally relate to the scoffing! I've heard it almost my whole life. And I too hope this generation of young children will grow up in a more earth-friendly human-friendly, critter-friendly world.

    Thank you Carolyn. That's very interesting, and surprising to me too. Maybe they stay in more cover during the coldest months. I don't think I've seen a robin in these parts before early March, but maybe that's because they're laying low, trying to stay warm.

    Priscilla, I'm sorry I made you cry! (I still get teary when I think about our robin.)

    I can't imagine what that landlord was using back in the 60's. I probably don't want to know. I think DDT was even available back then for home gardeners.

    A number of previously-common pesticides have been outlawed, including, probably whatever our old landlord used in his garden, but clearly a lot more needs to be done.

  5. What a sad story. I feel sorry for Robbie, -and for you as a little child. I loved birds when I was little and still do. We don't have Robins in Norway, but we have a lot of other thrushes.

    Have a nice weekend :)

  6. Marie, it was very sad for me, and for my whole family. We all loved that little bird.

    Still, I'm very grateful for the lessons I learned from him. Every time I see a robin, I think of Robbie.

  7. Linda, it is always heartbreaking to lose a bird or pet needlessly... especially as a child. Hopefully we are all getting better about what we use and where... I am very excited about learning to grow veggies organically.

    Your robin photo is great!
    Meems @Hoe&Shovel

  8. What a lovely photo, and such a sad story about Robbie.

    There's a movement afoot in my province to ban cosmetic pesticides and I hope and pray it passes. Just last month I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in ages. She told me she has cancer and that when the tumor was analysed it was determined to have probably been caused by exposure to pesticides.

  9. Oh that wasn't the ending I was hoping for, I was hoping that he'd come back and visit you year after year. I'm glad your parents were able to get you out of that place and to a nice home with a healthy garden.

    While my parents weren't much into gardening when I was a kid, I was so lucky that they also had no desire to poison our yard as so many neighbors did back then.

  10. What a poignant story...thank you for sharing it.

    clay and limestone

  11. Meems, maybe we can't control what commercial growers do, but we can each make a difference, one garden at a time! I'm proud to be a part of the garden blogging community where environmental consciousness is at the forefront. I'm glad you liked the photo! I was hoping my mom had a photo of Robbie. I thought I remembered one of him perched on my dad's finger, but that was Chipper, the blue jay I raised. I wrote this several weeks ago, but waited to post it until I could catch a good robin photo. This guy was ready and waiting to have his picture on the internet!

    Amy, I hope it passes too. It's heartening to see movement towards more environmentally-friendly policies.

    I'm so sorry about your friend. I hope her cancer is treatable and she makes a full recovery.

    Melanie, I so wish there had been a happier ending. I wish I'd learned that lesson in another way. Good for your parents! I suspect yours and my parents were in the minority back then.

    Gail, I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but if Robbie's story changes just one person's approach to gardening, it was worth telling.

  12. What a touching story! My father used to bring me abandoned baby rabbits he would find in the fields during spring farming season. They rarely survived, but I think it was because they really needed their mothers. To think your robin died because of such human thoughtlessness is particularly tragic. There is certainly a lesson to be learned here.

  13. What a sad story but the truth why organic gardening is the only thing safe for humans and animals!

  14. Rose, baby bunnies are so precious! I've heard it's extremely difficult to keep them alive, although I'm not sure why. Baby birds are extremely challenging too. I couldn't even count how many we tried to save when I was a kid. Robbie would have made it, I think, without the pesticide in our landlord's garden.

    About 8 years later, Chipper, a baby blue jay I raised survived, and I had the joy and sadness of setting him free. He came back every morning for a few years to make noise outside my bedroom window. That bird and I had a connection that can't be explained in words.

    The lessons learned from Robbie were never lost on me or my parents. When you see a beautiful, healthy, living being that you've tenderly nurtured and loved die that way, it makes a lasting impression.

    Rosemarie, Amen to that. It was a tragic way to learn that lesson. Once learned, it was never forgotten. That's Robbie's legacy to me.

  15. What a sad and yet wonderful story. I'm glad your parents were able to get their own home and that your mom instilled a respect for nature and living things in you. I volunteered for a time at the Bird Center of Washtenaw County. I was struck by how unlike their parents baby birds look, and their never-ending hunger. The work of rehabilitators is demanding and not something I could keep doing, unfortunately. I do bring them flowers for their hummers and I'm a livelong organic gardener (before I knew there was a name for it).
    ~ Monica

  16. The things we observe as children are so pure and everlasting. Then as parents who love and care for our children we dread those painful moments even more.

    As I walked through my neighbors yard today to get photos of their phlox, I looked down to see I was stepping in some kind of granules. I went home and washed my shoes off and immediately felt sick. I had turned over a new leaf with my home saying that no chemical would be used here. I felt like some kind of ugliness had crept in to my world. I don't even want my grand dog to to be exposed to them. Now I got to watch and make sure she doesn't get on these granules.

  17. Poor Robbie. Sad story!

  18. the middle one7:00 PM

    Well, you definitely passed it on to your daughters, the miracle worker oldest in particular. I still remember the hawks in that back room of our garage and smile just thinking about it.

  19. Monica, I remember Mom having to get up in the middle of night to feed Robbie. I don't remember how often she had to do that, and I think it was only at first when he was tiny. He did have some feathers when she found him. The only baby birds we successfully raised already had at least downy feathers.

    I remember at first, Robbie was always hungry! Every time we came near him when he was awake, he'd open his little beak wide, wanting to be fed. I think we fed him every hour or two during the day. They grow so fast and have such fast metabolisms, baby birds seem insatiable - not unlike human infants!

    It's really cool that you got a chance to work at a place like that. Bird rehabilitators and other animal rescuers are heroes! Good on ya for helping, and for doing your gardening organically.

    Anna, in a previous home I had a neighbor who once came into my yard (dressed in nothing but shorts and sandals - no shirt, no protective clothing,) with a professional mosquito fogger, and sprayed my yard, including my organic vegetable garden. It's a good thing my ex-husband talked to him instead of me (my ex knew there would have been carnage and volunteered for the job to save his kids from growing up with a mother in prison for murder ;) If it had been me, not only would he have been walking around half-naked, he would have been headless as well!

    Rurality, yes it was sad. I'm so grateful the lesson wasn't lost on us.

    Hey sweetie! I was thinking about trying to find the pictures of the hawks. (I'd have to ask someone to scan them, since our printer/scanner isn't working lately.) That would be a good guest post for K to write! (Animal rights activists might be offended by how those babies learned to hunt!)

  20. I wasn't gonna read the Robbie Robin story because I knew it would get my eyes watering but in the end I did and you wrote it so well.It's so unfair that them little beings have to learn about human mistakes the hard way. Poor lil thing :-( Just the other year I saved a baby blackbird & could not return it back to the nest 'cause we also have indoor/outdoor cats that cannot wait for another toy to fall down from the nest. I was totally uneducated about how to care for it but tried to find out the best I could and for some time he was doing quite well. And it was the most amazing little bird, following me around the house, waking me up in the morning with a sound that was joy for all of our hearts. But then one morning that sweet sound was gone, just like that, and I was never really given a reason why.

  21. Ok, ok, now I have tears streaming down my face. What a precious, sad, and authentic story. Seems like all children go through a tragic loss of a pet, and we never - ever - forget it. My first cat tragically died of leukemia when I was 8. He was only 2. I have a memory of him curled up on the bed with his eyes shut tight, and even at that age I knew he was uncomfortable. His hair was flying in the air, and the inside of his ears were transforming from pink to white. I remember finding my baby blanket - of which I still have a shred - and covering him up tight, just like my mom did to me when I was sick in bed. Three weeks later, I said goodbye to him at the vet's office.

    Thank you for sharing this story, and I love the picture too. It's beautiful. And...really, thank you for your support. You're always so kind to me.


  22. Violet, I'm sorry about your blackbird. I wonder what happened to it?

    Birds are miraculous beings to me. The connection that a human can have with a wild thing like that is truly amazing. Your blackbird following you around the house reminds me of the bluejay I raised. I wish you'd been able to experience the sad, poignant, yet beautiful joy of setting it free. I can see why people dedicate their lives to rehabilitating wild things. Other than raising my children and seeing them go off into the world, nothing else compares.

    Hinsley, oh, that's such a tragic experience, losing a cat to leukemia. My girls and I rescued quite a few shelter cats as they were growing up. But we did get one kitten from my youngest's babysitter. She'd been able to watch the kittens born and grow old enough to leave their mother.

    She begged for one of the kittens, and we got a beautiful white and grey long-haired one she named Rascal (he was a Rascal too!) Several months later after having him neutered, the leukemia that had lain dormant in him, apparently since birth, came raging into active, virulent disease.

    He was dying a slow, painful death, and we too had to say goodbye to him at the vets office to spare him any further suffering. This happened within weeks of my dad passing away from a heart attack. Losing her kitten and her grandpa in that short span of time was almost more than my daughter could bear at only 6 years old.

    It was an awful time for our family, and had a lasting impact on my then little girl. I can truly empathize with what you must have gone through at such a tender age, especially with all you were already going through with your own health. Your kitty must been such a companion and comfort to you, and I can imagine how much you have missed him and how sad it must have been to lose your little friend.


Thank you for stopping by! Comments are welcomed, and while I may not always respond here, I'm happy to pay you a visit.

While comments are invited, links to commercial websites are not, and comments containing them will be deleted.

(Note to spammers: Don't bother. Your comments are promptly deleted. Hiding in older posts won't help - they're moderated.)