Robins Defy Darwin: Survival of the Stupid

Does this look like a robins’ nest to you? I didn’t think so. Good.

A version of this appeared May 29 in The Sault Star

It’s been said that growing up is the process of learning that things we were taught in our childhood are not true.

OK, as far as I know it’s just me who said that. 

And maybe I’m lying to you, just like your parents and your Grade 2 teacher. But I think there’s some truth to it.

Especially when I encounter a robin.

In my childhood the robin was exalted by many of the adults in my life.

The robin was declared to be the first bird of spring, so we kids would pay homage to that supposed harbinger by colouring in line-drawings of robins ripping gyrating worms from the newly thawed ground. Children fought over the red and orange Crayolas every April.

We were urged to sing along to When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along), a bouncy ditty from the 1920s that became an earworm in the 1950s because of several pop pop poppin’ singers.

Our nursery rhyme books included some variation of this: “Little Robin red breast/ sitting on a pole/ nidde, noddle went his head/ and wag went his tail.”

(We were blissfully unaware that the crappy rhyme of “pole” and “tail” was due to adult censorship of this original last line: “And poop went his hole.”)

Later, Canadian folksinger Raffi tried to sell my children’s generation on the nobility of robins with his song Robin in the Rain, depicting a “saucy fellow” with “nimble feet” and a “long strong beak.”

Lies. All of it lies. Except for the poop part.

Raffi said his robin didn’t mind the rain. I say it was too stupid to come out of it.

Because robins are bloody ignorant avians.

Some bird species are reasonably smart, capable of avoiding predators and remembering where they hid seeds (except for the senior citizen birds, of course, who can’t even remember why they came to the birdfeeder).

Actually, scientists have spent a lot of time lately trying to prove birds are smarter than we give them credit for. One National Geographic article informs me they are celebrated as “feathered apes.”

But those scientists choose to study avian species such as crows and cockatoos; no one wants the frustration of trying to teach a robin to fly a maze.

Calling a robin “bird-brained” is like calling Donald Trump “boorish”: it insults all of those who could legitimately lay claim to those descriptors.

Robins I’ve encountered in my adult life have demonstrated their utter stupidity time and time again during nest-building season.

A pair of them are doing it right now.

They’re trying to build a nest atop my smart meter. Or rather, Algoma Power’s smart meter.

I’d have to say that very small metal shelf is an incredibly poor spot for a nest, especially when there is an upmarket subdivision of lovely trees just a stone’s throw away.

It’s also right beside my kitchen door. I don’t want to be dive-bombed by protective prospective parents when I’m bringing in the groceries. 

Besides, it costs me enough for electricity without another home tapping into my power.

So I have made it demonstrably clear that robin nests are not welcome atop that smart meter. I scrape off their twigs and grass and mud and their vomit and poop at least twice a day, like a Kevorkian for the birds. 

Then I shake my fist at the now-homeless redbreasts perched on my power line, whose songs are far more scolding than sweet.

I’ve removed more than a quart basket of nest-building supplies from that meter in the past week or so. If I took a day off from demolition duty I’m confident there’d be a substandard nest there and a couple of demented birds trying to smash into my head.

Location, location, location, robins.

But their nesting spot is a step up, or a few feet down, from their original even-stupider choice — the edge of the steel roof immediately above the smart meter.

When their sticks and grass and binding materials slid off and landed on the meter, I suspect it was a eureka moment in their tiny minds.

Every year robins try to build nests in idiotic places. Usually it’s atop the sentry lights on one peak of my house. My house is not zoned for an avian airport, so I push it or hose it down, again and again and again.

At a camp at which I used to spend summers, robins repeatedly built their nest on a waist-high window ledge of the outhouse. Apparently they were attracted by the stupidity of an outhouse with a waist-high window.

Each year children would thrill to having a window seat on nesting robins (it was a great incentive for toilet-training), then sob to see little blue eggshell pieces littering the ledge, leavings from some predator’s cheap buffet.

After bearing witness to robins’ procreational inadequacies for so much of my life, I can only wonder this:

If there really is a Darwin, why does the robin species still survive?

A real Northern Ontario debate

(This is a variation of a column that appeared in The Sault Star on May 17. Check out the full version there, if you like.)

Politicians sucking the province dry? Turn about is fair play.

Holding a Northern Ontario debate in Parry Sound, as was done May 11, is like building a Fake Lake on Toronto’s CNE grounds for the G20 summit in Muskoka, as they did a few years ago.

Faux North.

Everyone (except a couple of governments) know the French River is the Mason-Dixon Line between north and south in Ontario.

The men and women who want to be premier should experience Northern Ontario reality, not call an afternoon in cottage country their northern adventure. That’s why I propose a real Northern Ontario debate be held around a campfire, way, way back in the bush.

It could be somewhere easily accessible by passenger rail, if that mode of transportation had not been obliterated by politicians on auto-pilot. In other words, a long and tortuous journey outside the GTA bubble.

We wouldn’t dream of flying our leaders up to the debate site; airlines cancel flights on northern routes randomly and for nebullous reasons. And we wouldn’t ask them to ride up in their campaign buses; think of the cost of a fill-up at pump prices north of Sault Ste. Marie.

Instead, they could take the Ontario Northland bus from Toronto to Wawa — only 15 delightful hours with a transfer at North Bay. Or two hours less on the Greyhound.

That’s unless the two-lane highway is closed, with no detour, because a tractor-trailer jackknifed to avoid a moose.

As they crossed the French River they’d be handed plaid jackets in the colours of their party.

Upon alighting at SPG Pump and Go in Wawa, doubtless raving over the comforts and ambiance of bus travel in Northern Ontario, they’d be bundled into SUV 4x4s and trek into the bush. Politicians would not be expected to help winch their vehicles over washouts.

Arriving at the campfire, each candidate would be handed a beer that would explode into foam when the cap was twisted off — it came up the same bush road as they did, after all.

Their opening speeches would be disrupted by a helicopter swooping down on the scene, bearing two conservation officers and a dog bent on keeping the bush safe from expired Outdoors Cards.

The dog, trained to sniff out fish, would bark incessantly at all of the candidates, apparently having put his nose to their campaign promises.

They would be fined for having too many lines.

The last party leader to run screaming to a 4 x 4 cab, pursued by hordes of blackflies, would be declared the winner and awarded all 12 Northern Ontario seats.

We’d throw in Parry Sound-Muskoka, too, just so they’d know those ridings really were in the North.