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An essay by Elizabeth Brightwen

Robert The Second

Title:     Robert The Second
Author: Elizabeth Brightwen [More Titles by Brightwen]

After slight intimacies with various robins who were visitors to the conservatory and found their way in and out at the open windows, I was led to special friendship with a brown-coated young bird I used often to see close to the open French window where I was sitting. He was coaxed into the room by mealworms being thrown to him until he made himself quite at home indoors. By the time he had attained his red breast the weather had become too cold for open windows, but Bobbie would sit on the ledge and wait till I let him in, and then he would be my happy little companion for the whole morning, flitting all about the room, along the corridor, into the hall--in fact, he was to be found all over the house; but when hungry he returned to me as his best friend, because I was the provider of his delightsome mealworms. It was always amusing to visitors to see me feed my small fowl! He would be on the alert to see where his prey was to be found, and he would hunt for it perseveringly if it happened to fall out of sight. He was often to be seen perched on the Californian mouse's cage, and I wondered what could be the attraction; at last I discovered that he coveted mousie's brown biscuits, and after that he was allowed one for his own use, kept in a special corner, where a cup of water was also provided for his small requirements.

However tame wild birds may seem there will be times when all at once a sort of intense longing to get out seems to possess them. When this was the case Bobbie would fly backwards and forwards uttering his plaintive cry (one of the six kinds of notes by which robins express their feelings), and his distress was so evident that the window was always opened at once to let him go out.

I am sorry to have to confess that robins are most vindictive towards each other! Bobbie maintained a very angry warfare with a hated rival out-of-doors, in fact his chief occupation in life seemed to be watching for his enemy. He might often be seen sitting under a small palm in a pot on the window-ledge, and whilst looking the picture of gentle innocence he was, I fear, cherishing envy, hatred, and malice in his naughty little heart, for, all at once, there would be a grand fluttering and pecking at the window whilst the two little furies, one inside and the other out, expended their strength in harmless warfare which only ceased when they were too exhausted to do more, and then followed on both sides a triumphant song of defiance or victory.

I must now weave into this biography the life-history of a poor robin which, I suppose, must have been caught in a trap, for it had lost the lower mandible of its beak, and had only a little knob remaining of the upper mandible. It haunted the windows, and looked so hungry and miserable from its inability to pick up its food, that I thought it kindest to coax it into a cage where it could be fed with suitable food. By placing mealworms in a cage I at last induced it to hop in, and for five months it had a very happy life indoors, feeding on soaked brown bread and all the insect diet I could secure for it. When the cage was cleaned each morning Bobbie was let out, and would take a bath in a glass dish, and then fly to the top of the looking-glass, where he would often remain all day unless we were quick enough to secure his cage-door when he went in to feed. By the middle of May I thought caterpillars would be plentiful enough for him to find his own living, so one day he was released, but unhappily Robert the Second was close by, and the moment he saw the invalid in his cage on the lawn with the door open, he rushed in and savagely fought the poor defenceless bird. Before we could interfere he drove our pet out of his cage, and terrible was the battle that went on; the beakless bird was driven far away, and I was quite unhappy about his fate, for he was now beyond my loving care, and I never expected to see him again. Two months passed by, and I only once caught a glimpse of the invalid, but at last he came just as before to the window, looking thin and ill, with ruffled feathers, and evidently again at starvation point. Once more he entered his cage and began his old life, only now he was hung under the veranda so as to enjoy fresh air and the songs of his companions. For two months I endeavoured to keep the dear little creature happy; we were all so fond of him, and it seems very touching to think that in his times of extremity he should have come willingly into captivity and felt sure that a kind welcome would be accorded him. But no amount of care could bring him through the moulting season, the lack of a beak to plume his feathers and his great difficulty in picking up even the mealworms made him weak and sickly. He got out of his cage one day into the garden, and a few days after we found his poor little body lying dead close to the window where he had always found the help he needed, and yet we could not but be glad that his sorrowful little life was ended.

When robins have been thus tamed for years the families they rear are like pet birds; they are fed by their parents close to the windows, and then come indoors, as if they knew they would be welcome everywhere.

There is one feature in the robin's character that, as far as I know, is shared by no other bird; I mean his adopting a certain spot as his district and always keeping to it, just as the stickle-backs portion out a pond and jealously defend the territory they have chosen. Here, there is a special robin to be found at each of the lodges; one haunts the Mission Hall and will often sing vigorously from the reading-stand while classes are going on. A very tame one lives in the coachman's house, running about the floor like a little brown mouse, and sitting inside the fender on cold days to warm himself. He must have met with trouble in his early youth, for when first seen he was very lame, and had lost the sight of one eye. Through kind care he has become well and strong, but he is much at the mercy of his enemies, who often attack him on his blind side. The conservatory, dining-room, and drawing-rooms have each their little redbreast visitor; the latter is so tame he will take meal-worms from my hand, and sits on my inkstand singing a sweet, low song whilst I write. As long as each bird keeps to his domain there is peace, but woe to any intruder! The conflicts are desperate, and I have often to mediate, and separate two little furies rolling over and over on the ground. I suppose it is in this way that the idea has arisen about the young robins killing the old ones; I cannot ascertain that it has any foundation--in fact, every robin fights his neighbour all the year through, except when paired and busy with domestic duties. As dead redbreasts are not found specially in autumn, I do not think there can be any truth in the superstition.

[The end]
Elizabeth Brightwen's essay: Robert The Second