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Bruce Mactavish: Bringing home the bacon

This robin was carrying three caterpillars, two earthworms and a stray piece of grass, but was still looking for more to bring back to the nest to feed the hungry young.
This robin was carrying three caterpillars, two earthworms and a stray piece of grass, but was still looking for more to bring back to the nest to feed the hungry young.

Robins are everywhere. They are actively gathering food to feed the hungry mouths back at the nest or the young that have recently grown enough to jump from the nest.

Our lawns are choice locations for collecting the day’s food supply to bring home to the bottomless stomachs of the new family. Robins are experts at detecting life forms in the grass. They use their eyes to look for movements in the grass. They use their ears to listen to the sounds of grubs and insects moving in the grass litter.  

I would not be surprised if they had a sixth sense. Maybe they can detect faint electrical fields given off by the invertebrate critters living in our lawns.

It is uncanny how efficient robins are at finding earthworms. Take a stroll across any lawn and look down at your feet. Do you see anything besides grass? The robins are masters at what they do.

One day after supper I was at the Cape Spear parking lot enjoying the evening light when I noticed two robins running about on a newly mowed strip of grass. They were used to the close presence of people and cars. I had a great vantage point from my car. They were collecting food constantly. Like a puffin lining up caplin in their bill, the robins were able to hold several food items in their bill while hunting for more to add. Once they had a load, they flew to a distant clump of fir trees where the nest must have been located.

A minute or two later they were back looking for more.

There was one particular caterpillar, probably the larvae of an unknown moth species, which was popular with robins. But when an earthworm was detected the robin would drop what booty it was carrying and give an all-out effort on the worm.

The robin would repeatedly drive its yellow bill into the earth until it got a hold of the worm. Without pulling too hard it eased the worm out of the ground without breaking it in half. Once the worm was securely in its bill, the robin would gather up the rest of the food items it had just put down and continue hunting until it had a full load to carry home.

This would be going on all day for close to two weeks for this pair of robins and all the other robins across the province.

Multiply the effort of these two robins times the number of pairs of robins across the province and you have a staggering total of lawn critters consumed.

As typically happens at this time of year people discover young robins just out of the nest and still too weak to fly. The absolute best thing you can do for that bird is leave it alone. It may be nearly helpless in the grass but it is all part of the sequence of leaving the nest and becoming physically independent.

The adults are off looking for more food to feed that youngster. The adults make contact calls when they return with a beak full of food. The young respond making it easy for the adults to relocate the young hidden in the grass.

There is no doubt that this a vulnerable week for the young robins. Natural predators such as foxes get their share of the easy pickings. House cats and dogs also claim the lives of many young backyard robins.

In the end the majority of the young robins do survive. Nature has allowed for a certain percentage to be lost during the fledging period.

Robins are only one of the many species of songbird across the provinces going through the same stage of their reproduction period.

Starlings are conspicuous at this time of year sharing the same lawn space as the robins looking for the same kind of food to feed the young.

There seems to be enough food to go around. Starlings are not so apt at digging earthworms out of the soil but they are less discriminating about what they will eat going for spiders, beetles and centipedes.

The intimate activities at a bird’s nest are typically kept out of sight from all other birds and animals to maintain the safety of the young.

Thanks to Newfoundland Power everyone can watch all the activities at one osprey nest. The nest is located off Stavanger Drive in east St. John’s. A web cam positioned by the nest over the winter before the ospreys returned has been completely accepted by the nesting ospreys.

You can watch everything the ospreys do on computer from the comfort of your home or office (don’t tell the boss). Search for Newfoundland Power: Osprey NestCam. The young have just hatched so there should be lots of activity until late August as the adults bring back fish to feed the young.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca

 

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