Storks of the Midwest

“What’s a robin?” I asked my mother.

“It’s a special bird,” she told me. “When you see it, you know it’s spring. It sings beautifully. And it has a red breast.”

Every spring my mother would talk about those special birds and how much she missed them. Over the years I pieced bits of information together, and formed my picture of the robin.

We lived in the Middle East. I wasn’t familiar with many migratory birds. The pigeons and sparrows stayed around all year. There were, however, storks. Each year they would appear from nowhere and announce spring by building large nests atop telephone poles and aqua-duct ruins. The storks were huge birds and somewhat solitary. They weren’t rare, but they weren’t common either. Seeing one was, for us children, an event to report.

Robins, I decided, must be like storks, only more impressive. I wasn’t quite sure what they looked like, but I was pretty certain they were a good 18 inches tall, bright red, and very rare. I dreamed of the day that I might, if I was lucky, see one.

Then I moved to Iowa.

Robins, I soon discovered, were not much bigger than sparrows, a rather dull red (and, that, only the males), and appeared in flocks. I didn’t have to search for a solitary herald of spring. Robins were everywhere! If I managed an hour without seeing one – or ten – that might have been something to talk about, but seeing a robin . . .

For years I shook my head and laughed every time I saw robins. I laughed at how un-stork-like they were. I laughed at how small they were. I laughed at how many of them there were. And I laughed at myself for having come up with such an odd picture of them, for having thought they were something special.

But today, I saw a robin – no, not a robin. I saw The Robin, the first robin of spring. And I jumped up and down and squealed with joy all by myself in the middle of the marsh.

If I were to raise children in a land without robins, I too would tell them about the special bird, the one with the red breast and beautiful song that comes each spring.