By Keith Michael
“The song is called ‘Ways and Means’ but that’s only what it’s called, you know!”
“Well, what is the song, then?” said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
“I was coming to that,” the Knight said.
—Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
“Do, Re, ME ME ME, Fa, So, La, Ti…”
No, I’m NOT going to launch into that Rodgers and Hammerstein toe-tapper (once it gets started in my head there’s no relief for days—too late).
It’s June, so baby bird season is already in full swing. Robins are among the first to produce progeny as a warmup for their second brood later in the summer. You may have noticed that the verse and the chorus of the fledglings is, “Me! Me! Me! I’m over here. Feed me. Where are you going? I’m right here behind you. Catch something for me quick. I’m hungry. Don’t you hear me?” Millie and I are making a rare-ish visit to Hudson River Park together. Only a few years ago her (then) slim corgi legs insisted that I go there every morning—straining at the end of her leash at every corner if I hadn’t chosen the correct right-or-left that brought us closer to the crosswalk that led to HER park. Now, much more of a curmudgeonly homebody, her leash-straining persuades me to take her back to her front door as directly, though maybe not as quickly, as possible.
A barbershop quartet of speckled-breasted Robin toddlers, days out of the nest, are badgering their diligent mom (or dad) with the cacophony of that time-honored refrain: “Me. Me. Me.” She rushes a few steps, stops, cocks her head, and listens for the earthen progress of a worm or six-legged critter. Got one! Toddler #1 gets the goods. (I’ll keep switching genders here, because in Robins they’re indistinguishable. The mothers do all of the nest-sitting, but both parents work tirelessly during this feed-athon.) Quite frankly, Dad looks a bit haggard. His feathers are matted here and there (like his shirt is untucked and as if he hasn’t showered in days), his tail feathers aren’t “zipped up” properly (as though he hasn’t had time to thoroughly preen), and maybe I’m imagining it, but he even looks like he has wrinkles under his eyes from lack of sleep. Another stomp-stomp dance, tilt of the head, pivot around. Success! Toddler #2 (waiting impatiently in line) equally impatiently takes the winged morsel—without so much as a thank you.
The Juneberries next to the West 11st Street entrance to the esplanade are starting to glow a purplish-red. It will only be a few days before the Starlings and Catbirds and Mockingbirds start hanging out in these branches, gorging themselves on the ripe fruit, and only a couple of weeks later that the Pigeons will convene to indulge in the leftover fermenting berries, appraising the nouveau vintage (“I’ll just have ONE more”) until you can see them stumbling across the grass in a drunken reverie. (I’m not making this up!)
“Milton, LEAVE it!” I’m able to abort a collar-dive into something irresistibly putrescent on the sidewalk. (Millie is also known alternately at home as Millicent, “Thoroughly Modern,” or ironically, Fluffy.) Whatever her name, she can be sweet (when SHE wants to be)—yet another variation on the “Me Me Me” sing-along mantra.
While I was counting the days to a juicy Serviceberry treat (yes, this white-flowering-in-May, red-berries-in-June tree is also known as Juneberry, Shadbush, Shadblow, Saskatoon or Chuckley-pear—each name with a colorful backstory), Robin Toddlers #3 and #4 got their snacks from Mom. Now further down the lawn, the quartet jostles in a slalom behind Daddy trying to coerce him into feeding ME next.
Robins, officially AMERICAN Robins, were named by early settlers pining for their European Robin Redbreast of nursery rhyme and fairy tale lore. These two are only distantly related: “ours” is a thrush, while “theirs” across-the-pond is more of a flycatcher. Both DO have a red breast and a cheerful wake-me-up-at-dawn song. I wonder whether Robin parents give names to their kids: “Eustace! Eugene! Everett! Evangeline! You are twittering on my last nerve!”
Millie and I meander along the river banister while the Robin family continues to zigzag across the green expanse of lawn, trailing that incessant contrapuntal survival call: “Me! Me! Me!”
For more information about birding outings, photographs or books visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com.