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Fantasy Creative Nonfiction Adventure

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a work of fiction, but I have used information about migrating birds from the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which I believe is the most up-to-date scientific data.

Interviewer: Please tell us what happens during your winter migration.

Maude:         Yes, I will tell you the story of what happened last year.

Small rustling sounds among the leaves woke me from a sweet dream of warm sunshine and a full stomach. I was hungry and would need to go foraging for food soon. The light was returning to our roost as the sun came up, and the occasional “cheep” soon became a symphony of calls, “cheerily, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.” Our song grew louder and faster, settling into a steady rhythm as we joined with other birds in the glorious dawn chorus. At dawn our song is faster than at any other time – it is meant to awaken and to rouse us for the hard work of the day. Our song is also a joyous anthem of thanksgiving that we survived the night and have another beautiful day to enjoy.

Our roost was getting quite noisy in the mornings, as our flock has been joined by several other flocks. Soon we’ll all be making the long winter migration flight, from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan down to southern Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. We have spent the past few weeks gathering together, and eating as much food as we can find to prepare for that long journey. As soon as we smell that first warm, spicy, and slightly decaying scent of autumn, we spend most of our time foraging and eating whatever we can find – worms, insects, fruit, or berries.

           I would be busy today. At nine years of age I am one of the oldest Robins in our flock, and I had the honor and privilege of teaching this year’s crop of new, young fledglings. I am an American Robin, and my name is Maude. I don’t like this name, but my dear mother gave it to me and I keep it to honor her. She died just last winter when she lost her bearings and flew too far out over the ocean. She was a teacher for three years - quite a record. I’ve heard tell that the longest teaching career was that of a Robin from Canada who taught for seven years before she died, but that may be just a legend.

Today’s lesson was to be on formation flying, so Il needed to find a bit of extra food to make up for the extra exercise I’d get as I showed the fledgling kids how it’s done. I hoped that they were good kids with good manners, but I didn’t have a lot of confidence in this new batch of youngsters. If yesterday was anything to go by, they are a bunch of hooligans and tearaways, who have no respect for their teachers.

I was blessed this year with two successful broods of chicks, and I must give half the kudos for this to my mate Thomas. This was the third year in a row when we have found each other and raised healthy chicks. The first year he caught my eye, and I was taken by his strong voice, bright eyes, and bright red breast, so I followed him, and will follow him again. At my age I have had several mates, but Thomas is the best. He found, claimed, and fought for the best location for a nest, on a sturdy, horizontal branch of a leafy tree, where the nest remained hidden. Unlike many males, Thomas was always there to help with nest building, sitting on eggs, and bringing food to his hungry children and to me. He makes me feel safe, and I hope and pray he survives the winter and I can find him again next year in our breeding ground. I know he will look for me, and that he admires me, which makes me feel good. Thomas is also the most handsome Robin I have ever seen, and I’ve seen females go out of their way to attract him. So far though I’ve been lucky and he still picked me. I think perhaps I am in love!

Our first brood this year was a bumper crop of five light blue eggs; I believe humans have named the color “Robin’s egg blue.” Four hatched and in spite of owls, hawks, and other predators, they thrived. A Robin chick has only a fifty percent chance of surviving its first year. So much can go wrong. Our second brood had three eggs and all of them hatched and have survived. I’ve seen all of them flying around, and today I will have them in my class. I must try not to make favorites of them, that wouldn’t be right. But I can’t promise, after all they are my children.

Now I must go to eat, then I’ll be giving a lesson, so I will be back later to finish our talk about winter migration.

The lesson began after breakfast with an alarm call from me, the sharp “yeep” alerting everyone that youngsters and guards should make their way to the nearby beach. We lived in the woods west of Lake Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. On the beach we would be able to see the approach of a predator and learn how to fly over water. I perched on a high sand dune and explained to the young ones, who stood more or less at attention on the beach below me, that before setting out each day they must eat as much as possible. Then we practiced stretching our wings and bending them to the right or to the left to turn while flying. Next we practiced being aware of our neighbors, feeling their presence, and when one moved slightly, copying that move exactly. This exercise always makes me laugh – a bunch of unruly kids arrayed on the beach, swaying and bobbing all at the same time. There are bound to be mistakes, bumps, even collisions. But we keep trying, and eventually everyone moved together, smoothly and amazingly. I smiled at them and said, “Team, you aced it! You are ready!”  And then we took off, up, up, up, and began to fly, to wheel, to zigzag, to rise, to fall, to fly inland over the trees, and out over the great Lake. We all felt exhilarated, proud, and happy as we flew in almost perfect formation. Then I led us all back to our roost, and thanked our guards, sharing a moment together to be thankful that no predators intruded on the lesson. The young ones were welcomed back into the flock with much excitement and joyous “chirr, chirrs” and fluttering of wings. The next day we must leave.

Since a few days ago there have been no worms to eat. The cooling weather has made them begin their winter hibernation. There are but a few insects around, and our large flocks are rapidly eating all the berries, seeds, and fruit that remain. We must fly south to find food. In the Spring we will fly back here to our summer breeding ground, and we will fly as fast as we can and make few stops, in a hurry to claim the best nesting spots and begin building our nests. But in the Autumn we can take our time and fly more slowly, stopping often to eat along the way. And the farther south we fly the warmer it gets, so most of us prefer the winter migration. Already I felt hungry for the fruit treats humans will put out for us on bird feeders.

We set off early the next morning, quietly leaving our roosts a few at a time so we didn’t attract predators. Then our great, swirling mass of birds erupted from the woods and flew south along the coastline of Lake Michigan. Many people travel a long way to watch the fall migration of different species of birds; sometimes we see the sunlight reflected in a pair of binoculars being used by a human. Our flocks are lucky; we do not have to fly far before we come to areas where a lot of humans live, and as usual we found lots of food at bird feeders in human gardens. We were not yet far enough south to catch the last of the wild berries and fruit, or earthworms and insects, but in a day or two we would be. For the first night we flew inland a little to roost in the woods, where there are still enough leaves left on the trees to make this safe for us. In the morning we found we all made it through the first day and night, and we took off again.

On days when there is not much wind and no rain we can fly up to two hundred miles in one day, and we keep a steady pace for as long as we can of about thirty miles per hour. On some days we run into problems. We flew over open fields for a long time, then came to a river and a string of small towns built next to the river, where we saw berries and fruit growing along hedgerows and around clumps of trees. We landed in the field and began foraging and eating. Perhaps we were the first flocks to fly over this particular part of the country, because there was fruit in abundance. Then I noticed a plant I dreaded seeing. It is a beautiful plant and has the most tempting smell – I believe you call it “honeysuckle.” In the autumn it has berries so delicious you can’t stop eating them, and that’s when the trouble starts for Robins. We get drunk on these berries. At first they make you feel just feel happy and relaxed, then giggly and a little dizzy, then everything you look at is waving about in front of you. I know all this from experience, but I was very young. I always tell my children about these berries, but that seems to make them actively look for them on our journeys and I know they enjoy the experience of being intoxicated. At least until the next day when the headaches arrive. We had to postpone our migration for a whole day because of those naughty youngsters who ate a few too many honeysuckle berries. To be honest, I envied them and wished I was not an elder who had to set an example as a leader. The worst part of this delay was our being exposed in the open field for such a long time. All the adults, and especially the male guards, were on full alert for predators, and we were ready to fight them off. Robins can fight fiercely for their young and their flock. I have seen the male of a breeding pair viciously attack a cat making its way up the trunk of the tree that housed a nest with his chicks inside. He won: the cat screamed, fell down and ran off. I have also seen a female swooping down and pecking at the head of a human male who was trying to get up to her nest to steal eggs. She won: the man gave up and left, rubbing his bleeding head.

Sad to say, two days later we lost two of our older Robins who just didn’t have the strength to keep flying and plummeted to the ground. We also lost two young fledglings, who looked weak and sickly from the time they hatched, and had been watched over by their parents and other members of the flock until the end. A few more fledglings died because they wandered off by themselves, perhaps to explore, I don’t know. I stopped keeping a count of the ones we lose each trip because it breaks my heart so.

When we finally reached our destination in Texas we were all exhausted. My flock tried to find our usual little wooded area, but it had buildings and roads on it, and all the trees had been cut down. Sad and weary, we found another wood, further inland from the ocean, but still with an abundance of insects and worms for us to eat. And we settled down to eat a feast, roost, and rest. We would forage and eat as much as we could during the winter to regain the weight lost during migration and to get ourselves in good shape for next year’s breeding season. We would stay here until the air warmed in the spring, then make our way to our winter breeding grounds. It was what we did each year – for us it was part of the circle of life.

Well, now I’ve told you all about our winter migration, and a lot more besides, can I ask you something? In the middle of winter each year you have a big celebration and give to your families and friends little cards with pictures of Robins. I would like to know why you do this?

October 14, 2020 17:52

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2 comments

Jill Howard
02:50 Oct 22, 2020

Love this story Ann! Maude is a lovely, motherly character and her personality shines through in every sentence. I feel connected with their community and invested in their success, which is what stories are all about: transporting the reader. Great job!

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Sue Marsh
16:17 Oct 19, 2020

Ann, what a wonderful story! Kudos! You did a great job with the Robin's migration. It is original and refreshing. I would also like to thank you for your lovely comment about Escape with Time. I live in Temple, Texas and I had no idea until I read a story about Bonnie and Clyde a few years ago. They actually stayed in Temple, I did research this story, my curiosity got the better of me. If you have a moment please read Just Apple Picking. Thank you again. Sue

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