A Vanishing Jewel in America ... Pekin Robins

I've never been to Opryland. The theme park that had been a city landmark for almost twenty years was never going anywhere. My attitude was the same about Pekin Robins. I had always seen them at the bird fairs. They were a dime a dozen. One breeder came up from Florida with at least two hundred of them. Innocent young children and unsuspecting parents would purchase them, totally ignorant of their special requirements. Personally, I preferred the smaller, lower maintenance birds like finches. Owl finches were my specialty, but now the thrill that first drew me to bird breeding was gone. I had raised several generations, and I needed another challenge.

Someone had mentioned that the Pekins required a unique diet and didn't breed easily in captivity. That sounded interesting. I purchased two from a breeder in Florida who swore that she raised them from babies. It struck me as funny that the only place you could find Pekins was in large international cities along the coast. Babies, huh? Can you say "imports"? I later traded a pair of my owl finches for two more. Now I had supposedly three males and one female. I liked those ratios in college, and it wasn't too shabby for my little hen either. We women are a discerning bunch. After a month quarantine, I placed them all together in a small finch breeder cage about three feet wide. Of course whatever loud singing, that went on previously, now came to a halt. Apparently when placed in a group situation, their once mellifluous song becomes a four note ditty. Ah, the price one pays for progress. Upon the advice of a fellow Internet birder, I placed them in an outside aviary constructed out of a commercial air conditioner crate covered with wire mesh. It was about six feet tall and three feet wide and still obviously inadequate for their rapid horizontal flights, but it was all that I had at the time. They really loved the sunshine, and it seemed to deepen the colors of their plumage. During the evenings, a red light placed on them for heat attracted all kinds of insects, which they devoured with great relish. At night they would huddle together in one large fluffed up mass with four heads sticking out of it, looking like some kind of feathered 'B-movie' monster. Booooo! Scary! At first I was worried about the cold, but at thirty degrees Fahrenheit one morning, they enjoyed a brisk bath that allayed my fears. We had a mild winter and temperatures never got below 27.

They are the talk of my neighborhood. Many people come by and admire their color and personality. Sometimes the Pekins make a rather loud noisy chatter. I don't know what their intent is, but luckily it doesn't last for long. They like to stay up late, long after the sun goes down, and they are up before it rises again. They will destroy anything that is placed in their cage. Green branches quickly become barren sticks. I once placed a bamboo plant in their cage, thinking that it would closely resemble the natural flora of their native China. It did, but when I removed it only a week later, it was a mere remnant of the bush it once was.

The Pekins not only attract human visitors, but they also attract local birds fascinated by the Pekins' song. The area wildlife would land on my porch, only inches from the cage and watch intently. I have seen Goldfinches, English Sparrows, Mockingbirds, the ever-lovely Bluebirds, and Nashville Warblers - a bird named after our fine city that apparently doesn't esteem it enough to live in it. A native of Canada, they are one of the more unique visitors passing through on their fall migration to some warm and exotic place. Favoring the White Eyes or Zosterops, they closely resemble the Pekins in shape but not in color. A love struck Mockingbird was one of our least favorite campers. After weeks of him sitting on top of the cage and dropping his "presents", I decided I had to be firm and allow him to follow more natural inclinations. Some lucky Mockingbird hen was waiting for his wiley charms.

I fed my "lovelies" a diversified diet, the base of which was a Softbill pelleted diet from Pretty Bird. At first, the green colored pellets were left in the bowl as a silent threat to me to feed them only the red pellets. I stood fast and the green pellets were finally eaten. I believe their indignation festered though. After six months, the green pellets were the FIRST ones eaten and only the RED ones were left. The Pekins seemed to be smiling at me through the cage as if to say "don't EVER think that you have figured us out!". Just molted mealworms, sans their chitinous exoskeleton, were eaten in a "corn on the cob" fashion. First they were quickly moved left to right in the beak several times, and then when "all was well", they were devoured. The Pekins loved oranges from the beginning, but other fresh items were greeted with much less exuberance. I was patient though, knowing that anything that could pick a tree bare in less than a week, had great potential. Now they enjoy kale, broccoli, apples, and the popular oranges. The list is growing as we speak.

Once, one of the Pekins flew out of the small door on the side of their cage while I was cleaning it. The sound of feathers whooshing by my ears could only mean one thing. Now I am happy for all those naturalists that say birds should be free, and I can see their point, but to posses something only to have it escape causes a sick, sinking feeling that, in my book, knows no rival. All day I waited for him to return. Thank God, Pekins are very social birds. He would not leave his buddies. He continuously returned to the cage and tried to get in, much to my amazement. I tried dowsing him with the water hose, but he was too quick for me. Sensing my frustration, my husband, suggested a different approach. "Why not try the orange in the cage trick?" he asked. Of course, what kind of a wife would I be if I accepted his idea without first shooting it to pieces with all kinds of possible negative scenarios. Nevertheless, my husband and I crouched in the window waiting for the thirsty and hungry Pekin to fly into the small opening of the cage. In less than an hour, we were rushing out of the house yelling, "We got him. We got him!" like two kids after having caught their first fish.

I heard that they are tearing Opryland down this year. I never visited the park. I have also learned that the Pekins are no longer being brought into the States. Don't wait for missed opportunities. If you have a chance, check out these beautiful and unique creatures with which God has blessed us.