This piece was first published in In The Air, a column I wrote for Montana Woman Magazine. September 2017.
Of all the birds I’ve handled, robins are my least favorite.
Over the years working as a field biologist, primarily capturing live songbirds for migration and breeding studies, I’ve handled many birds. To catch birds, we set up nets, called mist nets, which the birds fly into and become caught. We then untangle them and record a bunch of measurements, such as age, sex, and weight, put a uniquely-numbered metal identification band on the bird’s leg, and release them unharmed.
Researchers band birds in order to monitor populations. By banding, releasing, and recapturing birds, biologists can determine survival rates and learn a great deal about a population’s size and dynamics, especially in relation to changes in the environment. Banding data also reveals a great deal about bird migration: where the birds go for the wintering and breeding seasons, the routes they take, the places they stop to rest along the way.
Robins can be readily seen on lawns, their neatly pressed suits of brown and red feathers in sharp contrast to the bright green grass. I don’t know where the idea of robins as harbingers of spring came from, since most of the robins in North America are present year-round. The name “robin” doesn’t quite make sense either. These American birds were named by Europeans after the familiar robin of their English backyards, which also had a red breast. However, apart from their rufous chest feathers, these two species are not closely related, the Europeans being classified as chats, Old World Flycatchers, and the Americans as thrushes. There are so-named “robins” in many places that were colonized by the British Empire, none of which are closely related to the European robin but all of which have red on their breasts. Maybe a familiar name makes an unfamiliar place feel less alien.
Robins are, as we banders call them, turd birds. Their Latin name is Turdus migratorius, which seems apt because they poop all over the place: migrating turds. Robins are large birds, large enough that I can barely fit my fingers around their bodies. This is how I compare birds now, by how big they are in my hand. To someone used to working with tiny warblers and chickadees, robins are huge. A 25-cent piece weighs 5.8 grams; a yellow warbler 8.5; a robin 76; and an apple 164. A robin is as big as nine warblers, and weighs less than an apple. Warbler poops are at most petite button-sized blobs. Robin poops are dollops that cover a fourth of your palm. If a robin has been eating berries, its poop stains purple or red, like blood. Your hands, your shirt, the bird bag, your data notebook: you’ve either been mauled by a weasel, or you’ve been banding a robin.