number of nestling,
almost fledgling robins.
The exact number is below.
The Deep Meaning
for the first time since
my studio was complete, robins
nested inside my outside carving studio,
under a transparent awning. They nested
in similar places on the other side of the
studio before, but never in my work
space. Juncos had nested there,
hidden by moss in a crevice
in a cliff, but that’s that
story. This story is
nest rested on a wide
fir beam, under cover, warm,
sunny, and unusually safe from predat-
ors. Less than fourteen feet from my main
outdoor carving station, four babies
began as eggs, grew and developed
rapidly, then fledged, all in
a few weeks.
have flown the coop and
that part of it is over now. The barred
owl and ravens may or may not have eaten
the babies and the survivors may or may
not be managing, with their parents’
help for a while, to survive.
I set up a ladder,
kept my camera mounted
and took pictures.
parents chose the nest
site and built the nest, I was gone
a lot and when I was home I was usually
in my office or the garden. Mostly the garden,
actually, where I built a grape arbor and a curved,
contour-hugging stone retaining wall with rocks
accumulated for millenia. For the most part,
my outside carving studio, which was their
birthing chamber, was quiet and rarely
did I disrupt their calm. I’ll bet they
thought they’d died and gone to
heaven when they found
But all Hell
broke loose when I got
back to carving, because I came
back with a vengeance. I’d had enough
of the city, enough of hauling rocks to the garden
and building walls with them, enough of screening
soil and hauling that to the garden, and enough
of my office. I’d had enough of anything that
wasn’t carving and wanted to move stone.
Literally overnight, the robins’ quiet,
well appointed refuge became an
INDUSTRIAL ZONE and they
were stuck with it.
Many times a day
I came suddenly into view,
striding around the southwest corner
of the building or opening the giant swinging
door from the interior toward them. At intervals
determined by the amount of compressed air I was
using at the time, a big compressor came on, close
under the nest in a shed, loud and sudden enough
to startle me at times. Sometimes my boulder
rang like a bell with the pounding, several
times a second, of a pneumatic hammer,
all through the carving. Every-
thing I did to the boulder
changed its tone.
I cut into the rock with a
screaming, diamond-studded steel
disk, spraying cold dirty water everywhere
or kicking up unholy clouds of dust and screaming
even louder. I grunted and strained. horsing the stone
into new positions like a boulder-throwing Scotsman
warming up. A bright light illuminated every
thing I did and I was on display, the centre
of attention, and from the robins’
perspective, I’m sure, a
pain and a
cheap seats of the robin’s
nest, it must been a real sight and
sound. It was a different kind of place, and
the parents clearly didn’t appreciate it when I
carved, at least at the start. In a word, I freaked
them out. I wasn’t about to stop on their account,
either. They would just have to put up with me.
If they couldn’t hack it in my studio they’d
have to lose that clutch and try again
somewhere else, but if they could
they’d be welcome to share
my space with me.
as polite as possible without
slowing the work, I wasn’t about to
change what I did or how I did it just for
them. It was my studio and they could either live
with that or suffer the consequences. As a biologist,
I knew that if they did put up with me they’d have
an enormous advantage over predators, most
of whom would be too afraid of me to come
anywhere near. I don’t think the robins
saw it that way at first. That’s
the back story.
is that I got to see all
of it, at least in snippets, through
egg-laying, incubation, provisioning with
the fruits of the forest, changing babies’ diapers,
and otherwise keeping an eye on things, all the
way to fledging. It was a successful reproductive
attempt Both parents worked their butts off bringing
home the bacon. From what I could tell from the
photos, they brought mainly moths, worms,
caterpillars, beetle grubs, and three
kinds of berries, none of them
from our garden.
When I took
this picture, nestlings were
rapidly outgrowing their nest, they
were little more than a day from fledging,
flight feathers still growing in, bellies still pink
and tender, and still couldn’t have made it on their own.
Increasingly active, they took exploratory forays along
the beam supporting the nest, sudden lurches over their
sibs to the other side of the nest, furious bouts of wing
beating, sometimes two chicks at a time, both hanging
on tightly, all four chicks as clumsy as anything
and the bigger they got and the more they
moved around, the smaller their
nest got in comparison.
There was a lot going on in there!
It was a riot!
Until a few days
earlier, all they had to do
was sleep, open their mouths when
their parents came to feed them, and when
they could manage it, turn their bottoms to the
sky, let parents pull fecal sacs directly from their
vents and grow and develop into robins. By
the time I took that picture, their job was
to get ready to leave the nest but
they didn’t know how.
Here is an
example. Fledglings need
to fly, but they need strong muscles
to do it. While still only nestlings, they
must exercise their flight muscles to grow
them into fledgling muscles, beating wings
furiously while holding on to nest
and sibs for dear life.
to learn to see in
deep 3D, too, beyond the tips
of their noses, and notice and track
motion there to prepare to find
food without becoming food
They prepared themselves
to leave the nest without
leaving the nest, so to speak,
and all of it was new to them.
feathers still growing
in, their bellies tender, pink,
and bare, they didn’t know what
in the world they were doing.
They’d never been in the
They were babies,
after all, and the main things
they thought about at first were sleeping
and food. They were so eager to be fed that
any little thing flipped them in an instant to a
new state, from dead-out asleep to full-on,
mouth-open, mind-closed begging
mode. Even while they were
doing other things like
It was hilarious.
It was like looking
in the mirror.
At the 11th
hour, only one day from
fledging, they couldn’t coordinate
the parts of their own bodies and were hopeless at coordinating with sibs
or anything beyond. As I told you before,
they were clumsy. At that exact
moment, I took this picture.
I still can’t be
sure what was happening
at the time. Which chick did what,
which body parts belonged to which chick, or
what happened before and after. Four nestlings are
visible, at least three of them performing vigorous,
even violent behaviour, all undoubtedly good
exercise and good practice but, though
necessary, at least somewhat
risky, to say the least.
Some of the action is puzzling.
curves across the
foreground like a flamenco
dancer’s cape. Whose
wing is it?
At first glance,
it seems to belong to the
open-mouthed nestling at the
right. But to be that bird’s wing it
would have to be a right wing and
that bird’s right wing is folded along
its body.The beating wing belongs to
the nestling in the middle, mouth open
to the sky. But which wing is it, right
or left? If you study that wing
carefully and think about
what is happening
you can tell.
with its bum to the left.
What is it standing on? Its left
foot rests partly on a wide wooden
beam slanting upward at 45 degrees
and partly on what might be the tip of the
left wing of the bird at the right. Except for
one claw, its right foot is either clawing at
nothing or has that claw planted in the
back of the baby with its mouth
pointing to the stars.
Check out the fingernails!
The theme of learning by doing runs
throughout my stories about
teaching and learning
and creativity, like
Methods of Creation?
First published in the Vancouver Observer.
Edited January 2019