In Winter’s Depths, Glimpses of Spring

“Robins are one of the supreme surprises of February, when nature’s rosy shades slowly return to our dawn and dusk skies.”

Ralston took this photo in the late ’80s, on a visit to Isle au Haut, as winter gave way to spring. “There’s a promising green in that south-facing patch of illuminated grass,” he says, “but if you’ve been here for long, you know not to get your hopes up too much or too soon.”

By Philip Conkling
Photograph by Peter Ralston
From our February 2022 issue

“I dreaded that first robin,” Emily Dickinson wrote, the opening line to an exquisite poem anticipating how quickly each season’s arrival simultaneously forecasts its painful departure.

In recent years, when a large flock of hungry robins began appearing in mid-February in the holly bushes in front of the house, their arrival brought me a shock of pleasure mixed with a pang of concern. Clearly, Maine’s milder winters had set the robins’ clock ahead by at least a week or two. But had they arrived, I wondered, before there was enough food to sustain them?

I needn’t have worried. The holly bushes’ abundant fruits and dense, deep-green foliage provided plenty of cover for the ravenous robins’ late-winter berry plucking. Squinting to count the approximate number of flaming holly berries in a linear foot of the three-foot-high shrubs, then doing some quick arithmetic, I figured there were more than 8,000 berries for the flock of 40 robins that appeared as a burst from the sky. That meant some 200 berries up for grabs per robin. Within two days, they’d cleanly dispatched each sugar-packed morsel.

Assuming a holly berry is to a robin what a prune is to a person, you will appreciate that 200 berries is a lot of fruit for a bird to consume in two days. When robins gorge on the fermented berries of honeysuckle or pyracantha (firethorn), they’re known to stagger around and fall over, like your tippler uncle at a wake.

Carl Linnaeus, the Swede who gave us binomial nomenclature, assigned the Latin name Turdis migratorius to the American robin. It is the vernacular connotation of the genus name, however, that seemed more fitting after our flock of robins roosted in the trees over the clotheslines in the backyard. The carpet-bomb pattern of red spots on the spanking-clean sheets could not have been from their red breasts.

Scientists have coined a new term, syanthropes, for species like robins — as well as crows, geese, raccoons, deer, and coyotes — that do well around people. Holly, similarly, can be considered an anthropophyte, a plant species that thrives when humans move it around, as people have been doing with holly and ivy for millennia — though now at an insanely accelerated pace, since there are so many of us moving so often and so quickly around the world. With more and more of us, the beasts that walk upright, occupying more and more of the landscape, and with the world on the brink of a global-extinction crisis, perhaps it’s comforting to know that some species are likely to thrive. We should learn to love them more, if only for their commonness.

Robins are one of the supreme surprises of February, when nature’s rosy shades slowly return to our dawn and dusk skies. The more we’re covered by gray blankets of clouds, the more joy our eyes take in every hint of color. And syanthropic robins are truly easy to love. As members of the thrush family, they are wonderful singers, and we celebrate them for the descants that pour out of their furiously beating breasts, harbingers of spring that remind us of Dickinson’s closing line, “Each one salutes me, as he goes.”