In early May, the songs of robins are among the first sounds to greet me when I open the front door each day to join Denali on a morning stroll through our Turnagain neighborhood. Those joyful songs, along with the approach of my deceased mother’s birth date—May 9—and Mother’s Day, have stirred some nostalgic memories from the years Mom lived with me on Anchorage’s Hillside in the early 2000s. Here are some musings that celebrate the place that robins have held for me in both my original home, Connecticut, and my adopted one, Alaska, and also recall some poignant moments from the time my mom, Torie Sherwonit, spent with me in Anchorage. (She died in October 2017.)
The afterglow of a late-evening sunset filters through the upstairs windows of my home on Anchorage’s Hillside. To the northwest, a crimson band of sky hangs over Mount Susitna, as if ready to enfold The Sleeping Lady her in soft red robes for the night. I spent much of this late spring day in the yard, raking my unruly lawn, cleaning up debris from winter storms and working in my strawberry patch. Now, freshly showered and relaxed, I sit in dwindling light and listen to one of the world’s great singers.
Perched in a nearby spruce, a male robin serenades me with a sweetly familiar melody. His warbled song touches some deeply buried memory, from a time and place far, far away. I didn’t pay much heed to birds while growing up in Connecticut during the 1950s and ’60s, but a few species got my attention. None more so than the robin.
I still vividly picture robins running across Dad’s well-manicured lawn, then suddenly stopping, dropping their heads to the ground and lifting up a worm or caterpillar. I remember their rusty red breasts, dark gray backs, and sharp yellow bills much more than their songs from those long-ago days. But the voices of robins must have been among the most recognizable wild sounds to echo through my Trumbull neighborhood in spring and summer, along with the chirps of crickets, the croaking of bull frogs, and the shouts of friends playing softball in the open lot beside my family’s yard.
I don’t remember robins inhabiting the places I lived en route to my eventual northern home, Alaska: Maine, Arizona, California. Yet the map in my field guide to North American birds clearly shows we shared those landscapes. It must be that my attention was focused on other things during my 20s and 30s. First there was college and grad school, followed by a short-lived career in geology, then a shift to journalism; plus sports, romantic relationships, and my first tentative steps along the long and winding path of personal and spiritual growth.
Though I’ve always loved nature, it was only after I settled in Anchorage in 1982 that I began to seriously pay renewed attention to “the natural world” as I once did in my Connecticut youth. Though I wouldn’t fully welcome birds into my life for another decade or so, early on I noticed a remarkable thing about my new home: robins.
Like most people, I’d built images of Alaska that included polar bears, wolves, Eskimos, great mountains, and glaciers. But robins? They didn’t seem to fit somehow. They seemed too . . . I don’t know, too eastern, maybe. Or maybe too commonplace. I’d imagined them to be creatures of milder, tamer environs.
Then again, I never imagined myself becoming a resident of America’s “last frontier” until I came here.
In a curious way, robins deepened the link between my original and adopted homelands. While providing a natural connection between Connecticut and Alaska, they also stirred sharp memories of my boyhood. As some other familiar critters have done—for instance chickadees, rainbow trout, frogs, and dragonflies—robins increased my desire to better understand my boyhood bond with nature and, at the same time, learn more about the wild community of my new home.
If seeing a robin in Anchorage seemed strange, imagine how I felt upon spotting a robin deep in the Arctic wilderness, miles and miles from any well-kept lawns, or gardens, or trees. Traveling alone through the Brooks Range, without anyone to verify the sighting, I thought I might be hallucinating. Until I saw another. And another. Since then I have learned that robins seasonally occupy nearly all of Alaska, from the Panhandle’s old-growth forests to the North Slope’s tundra plains.
Here in Anchorage, robins are among the first migratory songbirds to arrive each spring. Come April, I anticipate their fluid, high-pitched song, along with the trill of the varied thrush and loud whistled notes of the tiny ruby-crowned kinglet.
Once arrived and settled into their spring and early summer routines, robins seem to sing (or when annoyed or frightened, screech) all day long and deep into the night. Often their songs are what I hear first in the morning and last before sleep. At the end of a long, dark winter—or long, busy spring day—few, if any, sounds are more delightful.
Perhaps I’ve gained a greater appreciation of robins because of another connection. After eight decades of East Coast living, my mother came north to Alaska in 2002 to spend her last years with me. Now in her 80s and suffering from advanced degenerative osteo-arthritis, Mom can’t get outdoors like she used to. Even sitting on the front deck can be a project. And, like many older folks, she’s lost the ability to hear high-frequency sounds.
Even when I open the windows and sliding glass doors, Mom usually can’t hear the chirps, buzzes, warbles, and whistles of our backyard birds. For someone who welcomed songbirds to her house for many years, that’s a hard, frustrating thing. Yet the robin’s song is loud enough, and apparently deep enough, that it sometimes registers. On a recent outing along Anchorage’s Coastal Trail—Mom in her wheelchair and I pushing her—I asked if she could hear the bird’s whistled notes. “I think so,” she replied. Then, listening intently, she turned her head toward me when the bird whistled again. “Is that it, over there?” she asked, pointing.
“Yep, you’ve got it.”
We both smiled at that.
Then, earlier today, a robin started singing right outside the sitting room window. Before I could say anything, Mom turned in her chair. “That’s the robin, isn’t it?”
Mom’s in bed now and her door is closed. But the robin continues to sing, a little softer now, while the sky darkens. He’ll still be singing when I head to bed, sending forth a calm, assuring sort of lullaby with its own touch of wild magic that stretches across the continent, across the years.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.