“It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

–Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

 

Rooting for the Redbreast

Before the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, hunters in the U.S. shot thousands of American robins. The hunters stood in fields and in the back of wagons, gunstocks in the crooks of their arms, and felled the birds. Flocks of orange-breasts dropped from fruit trees with berries pinched between their beaks. When dozens of birds had been slaughtered, or enough to make a hearty stew, many hunters—after shooting all damn day—sipped corn whiskey from quart jars in the shade and bragged until drunkenness and hunger set in.

 

The Name

When the first English settlers threw themselves from the boat and beached themselves on dry land in present day Virginia, they saw an American robin hopping across the land. With this discovery came today’s name—after the European robin redbreast—though the birds come from two different families: The American robin is a thrush and the European redbreast is a flycatcher.

 

Robin Pie

Robin meat is considered a delicacy and can be cooked like many game or nongame birds. It was most often cooked, however, in a pie. After boiling the breasts in salty water until tender, the meat was deboned. Then the crust was filled with chunks of meat, along with the thickened cooking stock, and the robin pie was baked at 350-degrees for 45 minutes. When the pie crust cooked to golden brown, gravy (the remaining robin stock) was poured on top and served like a pasty or pot pie.

 

Berries

In fall and winter, robins feed on pyracantha and other wild berries that have begun to ferment. The robins get drunk and fall like stones onto car hoods or fly into windows or drown in kiddie pools. Some birds break their necks while others fortunate enough to survive lay belly up in yards or under trees until their buzz subsides.

 

Earthworms

The American robin can consume over twelve feet of earthworms per day. At one point scientists proclaimed that robins heard the worms moving underfoot, but it’s their vision—not hearing—that leads to the kill, to the stretching of hundreds of earthworms from their holes.

 

Thorns

Some people believe while Jesus was nailed to the cross, a robin came and plucked a bloody thorn from his crown. The robin clutched the spike to its breast and the blood dyed the feathers red. And from then on the robins have been considered friends of man, of God, of nature.

 

Songs

The American robin is considered a songbird, but only the male sings.

 

Native American Myth

Miwoks claim that the robin knew where to get fire. And during its journey to bring it back to the people, the robin held its wings around the flames to keep it from smoldering. By doing so, the robin’s breast turned red.

 

Egg

When I was nine I stole a robin’s egg. The egg was small and sky blue. I’d always wanted a robin of my own, so I climbed the white pine in my grandparents’ yard and survived the birds’ chirping and dive bombs, and took an egg. Just one. When I got inside the house, I placed the blue egg in a folded t-shirt, believing this would keep it warm until the baby hatched. Meanwhile, the robins outside remained watchful of their nest and within two weeks three babies appeared. My egg—still in the folded Lions’ shirt in my underwear drawer—failed to hatch, to bring life, so after two more days of waiting I took it to the concrete steps and cracked it open. The yolk was bloody, a black ball, and the mixture was rotten smelling. The shell was thin and delicate, and when the wind carried the remains off like a beetle’s husk the three babies in the tree chirped and opened their beaks. They waited in silence with parted mouths for something to fill the void.

 

 

 

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© Keith Rebec