Hey Robin, jolly Robin,
Tell me how thy lady does.
- traditional English song, sung by Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
Two days ago in Riverside Park, I saw my first robin of spring, and he was not a jolly fellow. He (or she) was fluttering about desperately on the ground, snagged on a bush by a wad of string that had wound around one foot. I tied up the dog, and made my way to the fenced-in area where the bird flopped and flapped helplessly. As I approached, he repeatedly cried out with a loud, shrill sound, unlike any I have heard a robin make. It seemed to me to be the bird equivalent of screaming. I bent down and took him in my hand, gently pinioning his wings to prevent him from further injuring himself.
The robin’s foot was pretty much engulfed by some kind of soft, stretchy, black material, a few strands of which had become entangled in the low dry branches of the bush. I was able to break the string that bound the bird to the bush, but there was no way I could completely free his foot from the mass of material that undoubtedly prevented him from perching or walking properly. In fact, the material had probably turned the foot into a mostly useless block. I held him for a moment,thinking what to do.
Before I continue my story: if you find an injured wild animal in NYC and want to help, contact the wildlife rehabilitation center of The Wild Bird Fund at 646-306-2862.
But I did not take the bird to the rehabilitation center. I simply opened my hand and released him. He flew swiftly to a nearby tree, where he half-perched, half-lay in a low position.
I was relieved to see him fly well, as he had been flapping with such vigor I was afraid he might have injured his wing. He looked scruffy and uncomfortable, but was quiet and still, remaining in his spot as the dog and I left.
Whether the bird will survive is an open question. The fencing, designed to protect plantings, had kept him safe from off-leash dogs, but, come evening, he would have been easy prey for the raccoons that live in the retaining wall a short distance away
or for the red-tailed hawks that were circling above Riverside Drive a few blocks north.
It’s sad to watch a little bird struggle, and natural to feel an emotional attachment to an individual animal in distress. Should I have tried to take the robin to the rehabilitation center, which might have been able to remove the string and save its foot? Maybe. On a species level, however, predators like the red-tailed hawks need to eat, too, and (unlike the omnivorous, garbage-loving raccoons) the hawks’ only food is other animals.
Stressed and injured, less able to compete for food or escape from predators, the robin may very well become some other animal’s prey.
Or … he may survive. One does sometimes see one-legged pigeons foraging successfully in the city. If the robin hasn’t sustained other unseen injuries, if the foot doesn’t develop an infection, and if he’s just plain lucky, maybe, just maybe, the little guy will make it through another season.
Of course, he’ll still have to cope with the vagaries of early spring. February is not generally considered spring in NYC, but in case you haven’t noticed, this year has been, oh, just a little warmer than usual.
Still, winter may come roaring back at any moment, and then, as another old song says of the English robin (an entirely different species):
The North wind doth blow and we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then, poor thing?
He’ll sit in a barn and keep himself warm
and hide his head under his wing, poor thing.
Birds that migrate early, as robins tend to do, sometimes face survival problems, if the plants and insects they rely on for food are not yet available. But robins can eat a fairly wide variety of food, and so can adapt to sudden cold weather and even snow by eating berries and seeds, instead of earthworms and insects. (All About Birds reports that robins sometimes become intoxicated by eating too many honeysuckle berries.) By mid- February this year, many trees were already sporting nutritious buds, which robins, like the sparrow below, can also eat.
Good luck to the robin and all the coming birds of spring.