First Bird

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There’s a New Year’s tradition among serious birders that I learned about only recently: the first bird you see on the first day of the new year becomes your totem animal for the next twelve months. The first bird I saw on New Year’s Day was a Downy Woodpecker, or possibly it was a Hairy Woodpecker—the two species look virtually identical to a person who is not a serious birder, and particularly to a person who spies her first bird of the new year before she has had her first cup of coffee of the new year.

Because I couldn’t sort it out in the instant before the woodpecker got spooked and flew away, my totem bird of 2017 is neither the diminutive Downy Woodpecker nor the slightly larger Hairy Woodpecker, but instead the lowly robin, the second bird I saw on New Year’s Day. Look at that expression as it eyes me through the glass door. Do robins play a New Year’s game called “First Human”?

I am truly fond of robins. I love the way they stand in the yard and cock their heads when it rains, turning an invisible ear toward the ground and listening for the sound of a worm moving toward the surface of the saturated soil. I love the way robins flock up in winter, with the locals and their new offspring welcoming the Yankee migrators to a season-long family reunion. Robins are also my sole avian companions whenever I walk at dusk, and I love the way they call to each other in a kind of descending chortle as darkness falls. The robins’ last call-and-response song against the night is the theme music of twilight.

But I admit I was half hoping for a totem bird that’s a little more exotic, a bit grand somehow—or as grand as it gets here on this half-acre lot in suburbia: one of the fierce hawks who patrol my feeders, perhaps, or a sharp-eyed crow, maybe a peremptory jay. Not a plain-vanilla American Robin.

And yet the first bird I saw on New Year’s Day does not think of itself as a symbol, much less as an ordinary one. For all I know it does not think of itself at all. Animal behaviorists have a way of testing self-recognition in other creatures: they place some kind of temporary mark on the animal and then hold up a mirror. If the subject seems surprised by the new mark it sees on itself—if it adjusts its position to get a better look, or attempts to remove it—scientists feel safe in concluding that it’s exhibiting signs of self-recognition, one of the preconditions of self-awareness. Elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees and the other great apes—members of these species routinely pass the mirror test. So far the only bird to register self-recognition, at least under the watchful eye of a scientist in a laboratory, is a Eurasian Magpie.

I find these kinds of experiments fascinating, but they don’t ultimately change the way I think about the creatures I study through my own window. Each robin is no more nor anything less than itself, a living creature trying to find enough to eat and drink in a world of diminishing resources, a single individual trying to find its place in a large, often quarrelsome community.

I am content for a bird to be only a bird, a representative of nothing. But it was New Year’s Day, and I was still blear-eyed from lack of sleep and lack of coffee, and so I Googled my totem animal’s symbolic associations. I was surprised to discover that “What do robins represent?” auto-populates the search field just behind “What do robins eat?” and “What do robins look like?” I also discovered a surprisingly large number of websites with names like spirit-animals.com and shamanicjourney.com that focus on the symbolism of the natural world. Apparently humans have been casting animals into symbols for far longer than birders have been playing their New Year’s game.

As it turns out, robins signify joy and renewal. And what more could anyone ask from a new year than the promise, or at least a hope, of joy and renewal?