Tuesday, January 8, 2013

First Bird of the Year, 2013

Much better birders than I were probably up before dawn on New Year's Day, tallying birds for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

Seven a.m. on the first day of 2013 found me savoring the first cup of coffee of the year, loitering before opening the curtains for fear that the first bird I'd see this year would be one of the house (English) sparrows that have been mobbing the feeders this winter, doing their best (and failing) to keep other birds away.

My concern about the first bird I'd see is due to the "first bird of the year" game enjoyed by many birders (and non-birders). It's based on the idea that the first bird you see on January 1 is the species that becomes your theme for the upcoming year.

I don't vehemently despise house sparrows, despite their status as a non-native invasive species with a well-earned reputation for ousting native species from their homes and killing their young. (Though I would certainly despise particular individuals of this species if they messed with any chickadees, wrens, or other native birds nesting in our yard, and would do my best to thwart their sparrow-sized attempts at home invasions.)

But I didn't really cherish the notion of this pugnacious, unloved bird of the monotonous song being my first bird of 2013. So, being a clever sort of person after a hit or two of coffee, I decided not to open the dining-room curtains first, as that window overlooks the feeders, and instead open the kitchen curtains first, as that window looks into the feeder-less backyard. Brilliant, n'est-ce pas?

The first bird immediately came into view, along with a dozen or so of its comrades: American robins, voraciously devouring all the orange berries on the cotoneaster bush. Robins, of course, are daytime birds, so they wouldn't have been up til midnight carousing on New Year's Eve. Instead, it looked as if they were having their New Year's party shortly after sun-up. (Robins have even been known to become somewhat tipsy after gorging on fermented fruit, but the ones in my garden appeared to be businesslike teetotalers.)

Robins are famous harbingers of spring, but these revelers weren't heralding an early end to winter. The American robin is what's known as a "facultative migrant"--they typically migrate only short distances and usually only as far as they need to go to find food or avoid really bad weather.

In some places, such as the Puget Sound region, robins stay put year-round. Winter is generally kind here, and there's an abundance of fruit and berries to sustain them until spring brings a banquet of worms and insects.

Seattle Audubon's "Birdweb" site notes, however, that "most often the birds that breed in Washington migrate south and are replaced for the winter by birds that nest farther north." So I don't know if these birds are the same ones who'll be caroling in the neighborhood in April.

So what might a robin augur for the next year? If I'd seen a European robin, there'd probably be a cornucopia of superstition to draw from (and a load of birders tramping into my yard to view this wayward bird).

The European  robin (at right, below) is a completely different species, which American colonists had in mind when they named the red-breasted bird they encountered on this side of the pond. Europe's "Robin Redbreast" carries a heavy load of myth, legend, and lore on its 20-gram back.

A lot of this has been innocently transferred to the American robin by people unaware that the two "robins" aren't related. This made me wonder if American robins figure in Native American folklore.

Diamonddavej at en.wikipedia
A quick Google search reveals that they certainly do, and that the topic is much better served by digging into books; what's available online barely even hints at the role the robin plays and what it signifies, and it's all mixed up with a new-age dreaminess.

However, the scrim of information online is enough to suggest that robins in Indian lore were portents of spring, with songs created to delight humans.

The robin's pleasing nature is revealed in a story that suggests its rusty color is the legacy of a robin burned while fanning a dying campfire with his wings to save the lives of a boy and his father. (Interestingly, the European robin is also said to have earned his red breast by fanning the fire burning low in the stable where Jesus was born--though another tale has it that the red is a bloodstain the bird picked up as it kept a vigil on the cross, singing all the while.)

Well, it'll be another year before I post anything about the robin if I wait until I can get those books via interlibrary loan, so for now I'll gladly settle for anticipating a year of good fortune and joy. Any bird whose song is often rendered in field guides as cheer up, cheer up, cheerily has got to be a symbol of good things to come.


  1. We were hiking in Saint Edwards Park when I turned a corner and saw a robin standing in the path. It's my First Bird of the Year, I told my daughter, who (ever the 14-year-old) corrected me immediately. No, Mom. You just threw some bread to a pair of ducks. Oh, right. Mallards it is.

    1. Oh, kids. You can't slip anything past them! Well...the two ducks just enjoyed a nice free lunch, so...maybe they were lucky ducks, and you will have a lucky year.