A few weeks ago, I noticed our dog Cory staring intently at the holly bush in the front yard. A second later, I was startled by a robin flying out of it. Sure enough, there was a nest in the bush, filled with four pretty little blue eggs. The only problem was the nest was situated about 30 inches from the ground, the same height as a large dog’s mouth.
Although our dogs know to leave our chickens alone, small birds really bring out their natural prey drive. After witnessing our sweet natured Golden Retriever, Chardonnay, flush, catch and instantly kill a baby bird on a hike once, I realized that she sees chickens and birds as different creatures. Cory, our Shar-pei mix, has an even stronger prey drive and focused on the robin’s nest every time she went outside. Cory is a very vertical dog, so although she’s smaller than Chardonnay, jumping up to grab the nest is well within her capabilities. We knew this was going to be trouble.
“Survival of the fittest,” rationalized my son. I cursed the ignorance of the mother robin for choosing such a low spot to raise her brood. Last year, the nest was in a maple tree, 15 feet up. Sorry, the thought of our dogs killing a nest of robins was too much.
The robins starting hatching so we knew we needed to do something. Jay and I found some old rusty fencing material and surrounded the holly bush, using a couple of old stakes to hold it steady. Being so low to the ground, it was easy to monitor the family as the little robbies emerged. The big surprise was that unlike chicken chicks which are fully feathered and adorable, newly hatched robin chicks are naked, their black eyes bulging underneath their closed eyelids. Not exactly cute; they reminded me of inch-long, miniature rubber chickens.
I did some research on the American Robin, and found that the chicks go from naked to leaving the nest within two weeks. The newly fledged robins can’t fly too high or far yet, but will seek refuge in low branches or in bushes. The parents continue to feed and watch over the fledgling robins for another two weeks until they become fully functional fliers. Robins typically raise two or three broods each spring/summer, building a new nest for each family. They have concentrated, in and out parenting during the summer so they can take the rest of the year off. Still, even with their parents’ watchfulness, only about 25% of all robin chicks live to be adults.
I always heard as a child that one should never touch a baby wild animal because the mother will smell human and abandon her young. Now that I’m a backyard chicken hobbyist of three years, I’ve learned that birds have a very poor sense of smell. They use sight and sound to navigate through life. Young birds found on the ground should be left alone unless they are in imminent danger. The parents are around watching. However, one should never handle eggs found in a nest as the incubation process is complicated and the embryo inside can easily be killed if jostled.
We remained vigilant over the nest without trying to be intrusive and our rusty fence did its job of protecting the robin family from our dogs. We are well aware that snakes are easily tempted by a nest of birds and the fence could easily assist a snake trying to reach the nest. I have seen four-foot black snakes climbing fences or on top of tables, reaching toward nests of chirping Phoebes and Bluebirds. Ironically, I knew that our dogs would discourage any snakes, at least during the day. Fortunately for the robin, the babies were very quiet and attracted little attention.
The last time I saw the chicks in the nest was a few days ago, looking like fat people in a crowded subway, wishing their neighbor wore deodorant and their stop couldn’t come soon enough. I waited two days too long to go back and get a picture, because when I did, the nest was empty already.