January 17, 2023

I make a formidable enemy the very first year I start planting a market garden in my backyard. It’s April, and the cool season seedlings – onions, kales and broccoli- that I have germinated indoors are ready for outdoor living. It’s called hardening off: the seedlings need a few days to adjust to the elements before they are transplanted into garden beds, to avoid being stressed. Tray by tray I lay them out on the sunny deck just outside my living room. Here they are safe from hungry rabbits, and I can water them without having to squelch through spring mud. There’s even a set of tall evergreen shrubs next to the deck to act as windbreak.

My nemesis lives in one of those shrubs.

A few days pass before I make his acquaintance. He is a mighty presence in a compact body, with a puffed up orange chest and a formidable set of vocal chords.

‘Khak khak khak khak…!’ he raps out as soon as I step outside onto the deck, in exactly the same cadence as a machine gun popping. His bearing is militant.

‘Good morning Robin,’ I say, unaware that I’ve just entered a turf war. I water my seedlings while Khak Khak – as my husband later names him – darts along the deck rails, tail flicking. His discontent is clear. Soon I know the reason.

He is guarding a nest wedged in a fork, at eye level and only a foot or two from my face when I’m standing next to the shrub it’s hidden inside.

‘Khak khak khak!’ he screams, head feathers upright in an impressive mohawk.

‘Relax already,’ I mutter and quickly leave. I give him space by doing other things, like preparing planting beds out in my garden, a good fifty feet away. It’s my source of income, my passion, a tangible expression of: I can do this! But in order to succeed in my sustainable living quest, I must keep my seedlings happy and healthy in their nursery on the deck.

I try to be understanding. Khak Khak is just being a protective dad.

I know when the babies hatch out because Khak Khak goes completely bonkers. My husband has to literally watch my back while I visit the deck, because Khak Khak swoops down to claw at the back of my head. Sometimes he’ll drop like a rock from the eaves, at other times he makes a long silent run from his lookout on an ash tree across the yard. I hear his shrieks in my dreams. Just the thought of setting foot outside my door makes me jumpy.

I resort to wearing a bike helmet.

But I do need to visit the deck, twice a day by now. Days are warmer; the seedlings wilt if I don’t water them. Cabbage moth butterflies flutter about, looking to lay eggs on my kale seedlings, a fodder for their greedy pig larvae. I stretch netting over the kales; the wind keeps tossing it off. I make runs between deck and garden, carrying trays of kales and onions that I transplant into the garden beds. I do this at an actual run – at risk of dropping trays – because I’m scared of Khak Khak. When May rolls around, I need to shuffle things to make room for warm season seedlings like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. These are my babies, damnit; they represent the future, in dollars.

Understanding runs into economics with a solid thunk. I am tired of this stupid bird that’s squatting in my workspace and harassing me. So I think, why not just outwit him?

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I decide to change my schedule. I peek through the curtains at dawn. I find Khak khak sitting on the nearest rail – head cocked, eyes mean – looking straight at me through the glass.

A word about his mate: she is an enigma. I glimpse her in the nest, and then hear a low murmur as she alerts Khak Khak to my presence. What a disagreeable pair!

Speaking of pairs, two more robin pairs live on our lot – on the front and side yards. I study the males. When I walk past their nests, they don’t flip out. They just give me this rolling side eye that I interpret as, ‘I see you, so keep moving.’ Neither has Khak Khak’s fever gaze or stiff Mohawk; and they seem to actively avoid him.

I conclude that they are normal, and that Khak Khak is a psycho. Scary thought.

‘The babies will leave soon,’ my husband consoles me.

The happy day comes. We witness from the window as a scruffy pair of fledglings launch one after another. Khak Khak swoops after them, cackling maniacally.

But yay! I get my deck back. I even feel happy for Khak Khak’s success, now that he’s literally out of my hair. It’s almost June, and I’ve transplanted the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. I bring out seedlings that need warm nights – cucumber, squash and bitter melon. I start to relax and enjoy being outside without needing a helmet.

My elation short lived. In a few weeks Khak Khak is back on deck duty.

‘What?’ I am incredulous. I have seen him squiring his kids around the yard.

I part the shrubbery to see a fresh clutch of little blue eggs in the nest. This time around Khak Khak is a seasoned pro at harassing me. And he has two lieutenants – robin juveniles in mottled gray and yellow. They patrol my airspace, shrieking like a trio of Targaryen dragons. I vainly attempt to shield my head with hats, seed trays, an umbrella.

Khak Khak becomes so bold he even chases me while I’m working in my garden. He wants to run me off the property!

That’s the last straw. I need to put an end to this assembly line of avian dementors. I strategize. I plot revenge. I fantasize stuffing Khak Khak into a biodegradable, ethically sourced sack. But mostly I do research on bird deterrents.

Bird foil tape? Nah – too much work.

Reflective pie tins? Nah – where will I hang them?

The solutions that I find online are so complicated. I need something simple. I know I have found it while rummaging through a box of my children’s old toys.

I’m ready when the babies finally eject from the nest and wander off.

‘Sit on this, you little punk,’ I mutter as I reach into the shrubbery and wedge an old volleyball securely over the nest.

Khak Khak’s squawk of dismay when he finds it is music to my ears.

Next year he builds another nest, in the next shrub over…


Teaser photo credit: Fluffed up American Robin. By Fox454x – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=121652135

Nayeema Eusuf

Nayeema is a Bangladeshi-American market gardener in RI

Tags: bird behavior, building resilient food systems, market gardeing