Caught a robin looking

Thursday, April 11, 2002

April 11, 2002

Dear Gail,

A few days ago, bird droppings appeared all over the driver's side door and mirror of my car. Funny, I didn't remember parking under a tree. How smart we humans are to have invented the car wash.

The next morning, the bird droppings were back. Immediately I blamed the bird everybody likes to malign: Pigeons. Some roost on our roof. But DC, whose parakeets and finches and love birds make plenty of messes of their own, suspected I was wrong.

Looking out the kitchen window a few days later, I saw why. A robin seated on the mirror casing on the side of my car was looking at itself in the mirror and pecking at its image. Who knew robins were such peacocks.

They aren't, says Bill Eddleman, a biology professor and birder people call when confused by avian behavior. The behavior in this case is territorial and related to the mating season.

"If they see another robin they want to drive it away," he told me. "If they see it in a mirror, it's another robin. They want to drive any other bird out of their territory." It's as if someone else came along and pitched a tent in your back yard, Eddleman says. What would you do?

Robins aren't the only birds being particularly defensive right now. They're just the ones most visible to people.

Most birds defend their territory by singing. "It's like saying, 'Stay out of my back yard,'" says Eddleman.

The males also are boasting to females that they have a back yard.

Woodpeckers do the same thing by drumming. A gutter or a side building that produces a good echo puts out a powerful message: This is my turf.

The human male is so much more sophisticated. We build fences around our back yards, double-lock our doors, decorate our walls with the heads of animals we have slain and drive around town broadcasting our love song from woofers and tweeters mounted behind our back seats.

More drums.

We are particularly territorial about the couch.

And until we grow up, we fantasize about the perfect woman in all her air-brushed mysteriousness while looking for reasons to reject, through small acts of inattention and stubborn resistance to maturity, the startling beauty of a flesh and blood creature who asks for a little consideration and a whole lot of love. Then we are crushed when flesh and blood do what they must -- move on.

Leonard Cohen sang:

"Like a bird on a wire

like a drunk in a midnight choir

I have tried in my way

to be free."

If the human male has a saving grace, it is that we know we have less capacity for the saintly qualities -- compassion, patience, courage -- than women do. Secretly we are grateful to God for creating curvy people who can put up with us.

If robins are pecking at their reflection in your picture window, Eddleman advises putting a black cutout in the shape of a hawk on the window. There are a couple of species of hawks in Cape Girardeau that will eat a robin. Robins might not understand the concept behind a mirror, but they get the trans-species fear of being dinner.

As for the mirror on my car, he suggests covering it up for awhile so the robin thinks the threat has disappeared. What can be done about human male behavior is a subject for someone much smarter than me.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a staff writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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