Without fail, every single spring, a robin builds a nest in a really inconvenient location in our garden and we end up in limbo for several weeks until the babies are safely out on their own.
For example, the nest shown here was placed at eye level, right against our garden gate, so virtually every time we went in or out (it’s the only way into the garden), we upset Mama and got the babies chirping. Not good.
While it really slows down garden work, it’s quite an entertaining diversion as you’ll see from the video below (complete with very goofy faces). And nature is the priority, right?
A Beautiful Nest
To her credit, when Mama was first building the nest, the location made perfect sense. It was still late winter and the ground was still frozen. She had no idea this overzealous gardener would soon appear on the scene. The gate and vine are sturdy, and the brick of the house provides additional warmth and protection.
Robins build beautiful nests. If you’ve ever examined one (after it has been abandoned), you’ll find a variety of materials including dry grasses, small twigs and vines, scraps of paper, yarn, and mud. Once I also found a clump of my hair that I had put in the open compost bin.
To create a comfortable, secure haven, the robin uses its body to create an inner mud wall. We once had a nest right outside our kitchen window and I saw the Mama robin repeatedly turn her body around in the nest, over and over again, to create smooth walls. It’s quite brilliant.
Four is the magic number! Robins lay one egg per day until they have four (with some exceptions, of course). Sometimes, after the second egg, the Mama will start incubating the eggs, leaving briefly each day to get worms.
Somewhere between day 12 and 14, the first egg will hatch. After a few days, all the babies have broken through their shells.
The Papa robin may not spend much time at the nest but he’s always nearby, ensuring mama and the eggs are safe, and standing by when mama goes out. One good distress call from the female, and the male will come right over.
I’ve watched nests where the Papa bird was super involved and I’ve also seen other ones where I wasn’t entirely sure papa was even around. With this nest, I became convinced that Papa was a.w.o.l. or had been killed by the neighbour’s cat who was relentlessly harassing the young family. This poor Mama was taking care of everything and seemed stressed (though all robins appear stressed to me when they are nesting).
With this garden gate nest, by the time the eggs hatched, we had transitioned from winter to spring, the earth had warmed, outdoor gardening season has begun, and suddenly Mama robin had me to deal with. I did my best to minimize my activities near the nest, but I did want to get my spring garden tasks done too.
These Babies Grow Up Fast
Robins are your best friends when you’re digging the soil: they know worms will be exposed and they are first in line to gobble them up. But nesting is different. Those mothering instincts are fierce and no one is going to mess with the babies if she can help it.
How long the babies spend in the nest before venturing out on their own seems to vary quite a bit, but it takes somewhere around two weeks before they start to fly and learn to get worms with their parents. Can you imagine? We freak out when our kids take 18+ years to fly away!
With this particular nest, it seemed to take about 20 minutes of quiet garden work nearby each day before Mama would trust me enough to fly away. Or she knew she couldn’t wait any longer to feed the babies and had to risk it. I knew not to move while she’s out because I was definitely being watched. Those birds have radar! One wrong move out of me and she is back in a flash and ready to dive bomb me to scoot me away if needed. A few times I left a bunch of worms exposed on the soil and walked away to try and make up for the angst I had caused her.
As each afternoon in the garden goes by, the trust increases, and I can, perhaps, go retrieve a shovel from the garage without Mama freaking out.
It was during this time that I noticed that I was also actually causing the babies to stand up and chirp for food. It’s triggered by sound—but only certain sounds. Whenever I snapped a twig or rustled branches, they would jump up ready to be fed. I can see why this would annoy Mama who is madly trying to find goodies to bring back to the nest. Oh the pressure these birds face!
I got this video footage while Mama was away shopping. Watch as these goofy looking little guys do their best to be first in line for worms.
In just two short weeks, they outgrow the nest and take their first flights. There’s no going back home after that. The parents continue feeding them worms for a while (on the ground) while teaching them survival skills for a period of time (days or weeks, I’m not sure), and then they’re on their own. I quite love this time when the babies are so big (well-fed and bigger than their parents) but still dependent and rather awkward. Eventually, off they go on their own.
And onward it goes.
As much as I love getting garden work done, this is really what it’s all about.