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.



End-of-Winter Huge Hike is History

The only people back here are an old guy with something to prove and ice-fishermen with something to catch.

My loved ones cringe when I tell them I’m going on my almost-annual end-of-winter huge hike in the bush.

That’s why I don’t tell them until I’m safely back home and have not keeled over on the trail.

Sometimes I joke that my next of kin’s concern is actuarial. It might be difficult to convince an insurance company that someone died of natural causes if winter-starved animals and ravenous ravens have pretty well recycled the carcass.

Those of you who pound the trails for hours and hours every Saturday might snicker at me making a big deal about a hike. 

But for an aging and casual consumer of recreation such as me, this almost-annual event is the equivalent of the Boston Marathon.

And my end-of-season hike is no walk in the city park. Nor is it a stroll in the conservation area or trek along a rustic provincial park trail festooned with inukshuks.

The trail beckons. Who would dream that it’s uphill both ways.

My hike takes me to where there is, by many people’s standards, “nothing.” No homes, fences, signs, cottages, roads, cell towers, not even wind turbines.

As the crow flies, there’s 60 kilometres of a determined lack of civilization between the east end of the lake I live on and the Chapleau Highway. And even crows don’t fly in straight lines over bush as rugged as that. 

Needless to say, I’ve never hiked to the Chapleau Highway. That would take me weeks, not to mention air-drops of food, shelter, beer and wifi. 

My hike lasts five hours at most. Three and a quarter in. Two and three quarters out. (It’s more downhill coming back and I’m in a hurry to get home before I collapse in a heap of regret.)

I’ve never paced it out, but I think it’s about 12 kilometres round trip. That’s about six kilometres as the crow would fly if it were so inclined.

I follow a snowmobile path made by ice-fishermen through the bush and across three or four lakes. That in turn follows what were once rough bush roads made decades ago, maybe even a century ago, by loggers. Or so it amuses me to think.

It’s no groomed passage. The first few guys breaking trail each year run a gauntlet of saplings. There are ski wounds on trees too near the sharper turns. Occasionally I come across pieces of tail-light. People fell trees and drag in pallets to span the creeks.

I started hiking it years ago after a ride on my snow machine — the one without a gas gauge. I was trying to burn off winter’s last tank, ideally just as I coasted in to my garage. Instead, the fumes I was running on evaporated about five kilometres back in the bush.

It was an intensely sunny afternoon, about seven degrees. I was wearing a snowmobile suit and big green insulated winter boots. Inadvertently I invented hot exercise.

About halfway home a good Samaritan came along with a spare can of gas. Perhaps this man from Samaria had also run out of fuel once and learned from his mistake.

But while slogging in my snowmobile suit it occurred to me that hiking that bush trail on a warm sunny day might actually be pleasurable if I were not dressed for a blizzard.

My customary hiking strategy is to wait until the springish sun and ice-fishermen whose machines whine excitedly past my dock early every morning pound the trail down to sidewalk consistency, but before the ice is too dicey for safe hiking.

Then I let my boot heels go wandering, as one of my trail anthems suggests.

Often I’ll meet absolutely no one during that five-hour hike.

Ice anglers shun the nearby lakes, which have plenty of fish in them, to go to far-flung lakes that have about the same number of fish in them. That’s because fish taste better the harder you have to work to catch them.

I joke to my next of kin that if I do keel over I will be discovered by a fisherman who has limited out and can’t find a path around that annoying lump on the trail.

Still, keeling over becomes less of an abstract concept with each hike.

In my age cohort, the third-most-common recreational activity is dying.

Some do it with a remote control in one hand and a half-consumed fistful of all-dressed chips in the other, apparently having reached the tipping point for arterial fat.

Most, sadly, are surprised by one of the many cancers, or succumb to the ravages of radiation and chemo.

I have seen a couple of men die on the ice. But that’s in arenas, not on frozen lakes.

Besides, I have my cellphone to call for help. I reassure my loved ones that if I should break a leg I need only scale a hundred-foot-high pine to get an adequate signal for summoning 911.

If humanity is scarce on late-winter days back in the bush, wildlife is plentiful. They’re awake and their bellies are rumbling.

This year I saw tracks of foxes, rabbits, moose and otters. I heard sandhill cranes overhead and woodpeckers somewhere in the bush and seagulls cleaning up the detritus of a winter of ice-fishing. 

Tracks show where gluttonous beavers waddled up to the buffet table.

At one spot, beavers who opened their fridge and found it empty had come out to chew on some small birches beside the trail.

In past years, I’ve watched a pileated woodpecker destroy a small pine faster than you can say medium density fibreboard.

I’ve come across a moose bedroom, where five of the behemoths took lower berths in the snow. Moose hairs stuck to the depressions their bellies had made. Steam seemed to be rising from scattered piles of moose turds.

Don’t poop where you sleep, I would have told them.

Once I encountered a snorting, stomping moose and was grateful that it had no horns, so was a female and might be reasoned with. But later a friend told me that bull moose sometimes shed their racks in the winter.

Regardless, I did not have to demonstrate how fast a senior citizen could scale a spruce while wearing snowshoes.

Mostly, wildlife hear me lumbering along a mile away (they haven’t converted to metric yet) and find hiding spots.

But if a human sits down and refrains from singing whatever earworm song he’s been trudging to, sometimes nature forgets he’s there.

Once a fox came bounding up to within a few feet of where I sat before leaping out of its skin and high-tailing it.

Sasquatch stands silent sentinel over the trail

The past couple of years I’ve come across a sasquatch. OK, it might have been a yeti. There’s a remote possibility it was the root ball of a big tree overturned by a gust of wind.

But even though it is in focus and looks nothing like some guy in a gorilla suit, unlike what you see in videos online, I think it’s a sasquatch.

The beauty of a late-winter hike is it’s warm enough and the path is hard enough that you can travel light.

But do so at your peril. 

I don’t possess a lot of bush lore. Most of what I know came from Louis L’Amour books. Louis created the plots of many of those western movies of the 1950s and 60s.That means my bush lore works better in Arizona than Northern Ontario. 

For example, Louis taught me to face away from the bonfire so I’ll be able to see if some varmint sneaks up with a six-shooter cocked. Haven’t had to quick-draw yet during one of my hikes.

But I do know this: Whatever you don’t bring into the bush with you is what you will wind up needing.

So I pack a lighter, candle, knife and first-aid kit. Never been used.

(I do not pack the bear bell that some worried woman gave me, because I understand that bears get a big kick out of it when they hear a ringing sound when they poop.)

I also pack a deck of cards. A wise man told me once that if I became lost I should start playing solitaire; someone will show up to tell me to put the red seven on the black eight. And then I’ll have company while I’m lost.

On this hike I packed snowshoes, because menopausal Mother Nature dumped more than 30 cm of snow a few days earlier. If the sun softened the trail I could be wading instead of walking.

And I packed lunch, trail mix and a few beers because I knew I’d be carrying those out in my stomach instead of on my back.

A little beefcake? Well, perhaps a cautionary tale about what a lifetime of too much beef and too much cake can produce.

Too bad my sweatshirt wasn’t edible. I took it off after about the first kilometre. In fact, it was warm enough that I could have hiked buck naked with minimal shrinkage. But it’s easier to wear clothes than to carry them, so I decided to leave nudity to the bucks.

What makes my almost-annual end-of-winter huge hike special, besides that it’s so darned pleasant, is the knowledge that every hike could be my last.

I’m reminded of that by my knee brace, worn because of an injury sustained on the dance floor at a wedding celebration. My partner should have saved the last dance for someone else.

For a while I thought that cartilaginously challenged knee might be the end of hiking and other age-defying physical activities, that I’d be reduced to clutching a remote in one hand and some all-dressed chips in the other.

So each year’s hike becomes more precious.

Besides, I’ve convinced myself that this tiring trek on the beaten-down snow, not a congenital tilting of the earth’s axis, is what brings spring into my neck of the woods.