The Robins came to Roost

by Joanne Nesbit

The approach of spring is generally considered to be heralded by the return of robins. But for many years in Brown County the flocks of robins came in the fall as heralds of approaching winter.

Brown County native and former school superintendent, Grover G. Brown was noted by some as the “dean of Brown County educators,” wrote of the coming of the robins in the fall of 1903.

Near his childhood home southeast of Brown County State Park, Brown said it was usually late September when the robins came to the dense growth of brush near his home—an area of about 100 acres. Known as red brush and with scrubby oaks that held their leaves until spring, the undergrowth proved a particularly desirable roosting spot for migrating robins. Most of the birds left in October with a few stragglers hanging on until November.

But in 1903 Brown observed what he called a “deluge” of robins descending upon his neighborhood. “They did not come just by the hundreds and thousands,” Brown wrote. “They came by the ten-thousands and hundreds-of-thousands. It is doubtful if ever the number of passenger pigeons in Brown County equaled the number of robins for that year.”

During daytime hours the robins seemed to fan out over the county to feed. But, as evening began to settle in, the birds returned to their own “hundred-acre wood.”

“Some birds came in high in the air,” Brown wrote. “They could scarcely be seen. Others came skimming just above the tree tops. Even after it was too dark to see them, their merry chirps could be heard, as the tardy ones hurried back.”

In those early years, robins were a source of food for local folks. “Some people said they made pot pies fit for any king, even much better than the blackbirds of old,” Brown wrote. Because of the popular white meat offered by the birds, hunters in surrounding locales found the roosting area and converged on the spot, arriving after traveling several miles by horse and buggy. “The only equipment needed,” Brown said, was an old-fashioned farm lantern and a green stick four or five feet long, somewhat smaller than a broom handle.”

Those birds roosting in the lower parts of the undergrowth were fair game for the whack from the hunter’s stick. At times, Brown observed, there were as many as 30 lanterns that could be seen in the dark. And the whack, whack, whack continued until the hunters had their pockets and arms crammed with the dead birds. Some bragged of having killed 100.

“The constant flying of these birds sounded like a storm in the distance of the noise of a train passing at a distance in the night,” Brown wrote. “Actually at first I did think I heard a storm coming.”

Because of the darkness, many of the dead birds were not found in the fallen autumn leaves. There was no time wasted hunting for a dead bird, when it was so easy to whack another that could be easily picked up. And many of the hunters became lost in the dim lights of their lanterns so they followed a stream bed that would eventually lead out to a highway and a means to get home with their kill.

Game wardens could have had a profitable night rounding up the hunters, but at that time there probably was no law protecting song birds—no robin season.

That was the only year of so many winged visitors. “Why did so many robins come this one year?” Brown questioned. Why did they never come again?

Perhaps the trauma the flock experienced that year led it to find safer roosting places, leading one to give a lot more weight and consideration to the term “bird-brained.”