Outdoors Columns

Up Moses Creek: The Window Strike

Robin Redbreast lives up to his name. Tim Carstens photo Robin Redbreast lives up to his name. Tim Carstens photo

One day last December, a flock of robins descended on the loaded winterberry hollies in our yard, their red breasts making the clump look like it was hung with big Christmas tree ornaments.

But when the hungry flock flew off later, the birds left the bushes bare of red breasts and red berries. 

Well ... except for a scattering of berries and one redbreast we call the Solitary Robin, a male. He’s been a reg­­ular in the hollies for several winters, along with a hermit thrush. The two squabble over the berries, even though the robin stays in the branches to eat while the thrush forages on the ground below for fallen fruit. Their winter world revolves around the hollies.

When I leave at sunrise for my daily walk, the hollies are bird-less, but when I return, the robin and hermit thrush are there. The thrush flies off at the sight of me, but the robin holds his perch, his breast looking like a newly risen sun. He’s living up to his name “Robin,” which goes back to ancient German and means “bright glory.” On cloudy days, his sun stays bright. As I approach, I can point out the very branch in a nearby red cedar tree the robin will finally fly to, with a querulous cry.

“He probably thinks you’re pretty predictable, too,” Becky says.

At 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 31, while I was in my study, a bang shook the window beside me, and the sun went dark. Looking out, I saw the robin lying senseless on the grass, his wings spread, his beak wide open. He’d hit the glass so hard there was a splatter of berry mash vomited on the pane, with holly seeds in it. He seemed to be panting his life away.

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Since the robin knows my study window as well as I know his hollies, I wondered if a hawk had snatched at him, and, panicked, he’d flown headlong into the glass. Or maybe he’d eaten too many fermented berries, as robins are known to do, and had been flying drunk.

I got the shoebox we keep for window strikes. We put stunned birds in it and set it in a quiet place. When we open the lid later, either the bird will dart out or we’ll find it dead. Years ago, Becky started noting every bird we boxed. Out of 31 birds total, 23 have flown.

Noon. The robin is still breathing hard, but his beak is closed and his wings are tucked in, a sign they’re not broken. I decide not to box him.

12:30 p.m. The robin has sidled up to a dead branch on the grass. He’s regained wits enough to make himself less exposed. A bit of down flutters beside him, and there’s a red berry at his tail that he must have passed entire. He looks through the window at me.

12:55 p.m. The robin is breathing quietly now, eyes closed. He’s put himself into a kind of box.  

2:10 p.m. Becky drives up to the back door and carries in groceries, not knowing the robin is close. The bird watches. She joins me to look through the window — and remembers that when she pulled up, she’d noticed a hawk circling.

4 p.m. I go out to split firewood, walking past the robin. He doesn’t move. Returning an hour later, I see he’s now in a patch of weeds under the red cedar tree. Becky says a chipmunk was scampering around in the grass and it had made the bird uneasy.

9:30 p.m. We return from visiting friends, and I check on the robin. The night is turning cold, so I take the bird box with me. Ten hours have passed since the window strike. When my flashlight beam lands on the robin, still in the weeds, he flies heavily up into the cedar.

The next day, returning from my walk, the hermit thrush had the hollies to himself. The next day he was alone again. But when I went out mid-afternoon to split more wood, there was Solitary Robin preening his sun-bright breast.

It’s been over a month now since the window strike and through the glass I watch the robin drive off the hermit thrush. Life is back to normal. He perches high in the hollies, puffs out his breast, flicks his wings as if flexing feathered biceps and plucks a berry — King of the Clump.

I leave the red splatter on the window.

Burt and Becky Kornegay live in Jackson County. “Up Moses Creek” comes out the second Wednesday of each month.

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