I realized that this blog has done a poor job of addressing the color blue—which is one of people’s favorite colors. Today therefore, in an early tribute to spring (which may eventually get here this year) we are writing about one of the most beautiful colors of blue there is. The color takes its name directly from nature—from the nest of one of the most beloved birds of North America, Turdus migratorius, the American robin. American robins are actually members of the thrush family: they superficially resemble old world robins (which are flycatchers), so European colonists lumbered us with the inaccurate name. Robins are migratory passerine birds which hunt the ground for worms and other small invertebrates as well as fruits and berries. The robin is famous for its jaunty orange breast, its vivacious style of hopping, and, above all, as a harbinger of spring.
There are similarities between humans and robins. We are both bipedal omnivores. Robins are unusually successful—perhaps more so than any other common passerine bird. Additionally they are highly social and flock together to stay safe at night. However this blog post is not about the songbird (after all, when it comes to ornithology, ferrebeekeeper is solemnly devoted to galliformes and waterfowl), instead it is about the color of their eggs: robin egg blue.
Robin egg blue is a lovely pale sky blue with a hint of green. The name of the color has been in common use since the nineteenth century. The color appears everywhere: in crayola crayons, Tiffany jewelry boxes, spring frocks, giant bridges, and Air Force fighter jets.
Robins lay these eggs in nests which are 1.5 meters to 4 meters from the ground (5 to 15 feet). Because the nests tend to be in low shrubby trees many children have had sad experiences watching things go wrong. Fortunately robins are prolific parents and can sit as many as three clutches of eggs each season! They also start nesting and laying early in April.
Coincidentally, the aviary at the Bronx Zoo strongly featured the robin’s egg as an illustration of the powers of contingency and fatality in the world. Visitors walk into a room with a large wall covered in hundreds of photos of lovely robin’s eggs. The next room has photos of robin hatchlings in exactly the same grid layout, but the little birds are far fewer than the eggs were: every space which lacks a hatchling photo features a little obituary of how the egg failed (or was eaten by a predator, or broken in an accident). The next room features even fewer photos of fledgling birds–as nature continues to winnow out the unlucky. The final room has only one or two adult robins to produce another suffusion of eggs.
I was at the zoo bird house many years ago with my then girlfriend and each of us randomly chose a particular egg in the first room to see how we fared. My ex-girlfriend fell out of the nest and was eaten by an opossum almost immediately (!). I survived to adolescence (which was quite rare) but was sadly captured and devoured by a hawk—so at least I had a thrilling aerial death!
As I go through life, I often find myself thinking about the room of eggs. Although troubling, it resonates in a great many ways. The zoo meant it as a (quite effective) illustration of nature’s cruelty and caprice (and of the strategy of producing lots of offspring), but it also portrays larger themes of luck, planning, adversity, and perseverance. In an even larger sense it represents how amazingly lucky any of us are to be here after billions of years of predation, foraging, and trying to impress fickle mates. Yet we are indeed still here. We are the astonishingly lucky eggs who have survived by pluck and luck. Spring will come again—and good times with it. It’s time to buy some jaunty robin egg blue clothes and plan the next series of adventures and projects!