Ten Lessons For Climate Activists From The American Robin

Feb 1, 2015

For climate activists, this feels like the last moment. This summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report, covering Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, using by far the most sobering language to date. Among the impending risks that it identifies with “high confidence” are:

  • Extreme weather events leading to breakdown of infrastructure networks and critical services such as electricity, water supply, and health and emergency services.
  • Food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes, particularly for poorer populations in urban and rural settings.
  • Loss of marine and coastal ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for coastal livelihoods, especially for fishing communities in the tropics and the Arctic.
  • Loss of terrestrial and inland water ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for livelihoods.
    It’s good to be common: the American Robin is one of the most common and widespread native birds in North America.
    Credit Daniel Marquard

These dire warnings are having, at best, only a slight effect on policymakers. In November, President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China made history by agreeing on targets for greenhouse gas emissions. However, the agreement allows China to increase emissions until 2030 — only then has China pledged to begin reductions. The latest round of international climate negotiations ended in December with little progress toward the goal of a binding climate treaty in Paris next year. Meanwhile, the Republican takeover of the Senate in the mid-term elections has increased the political power of opponents of action on climate change. For example, the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will be climate-change denier James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the author of The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.

It seems that massive public pressure will be needed to bring about action. In September, an estimated 300,000 people filled the streets of New York City to demand action on climate change. This event, and other marches around the world this fall were a reflection, among other things, of desperation. How loud must we scream before our so-called leaders will listen? How many hundreds of thousands must fill the streets before our so-called leaders act?

In times like these, we need the perspective and renewed energy to be gained from nature’s example. We can all take inspiration from the fabled courage of the lion, the memory of the elephant, the teamwork of the wolf pack. But these are animals we may never actually see. In truth, we need look no farther than our back yards to gain instruction from nature. Here are ten valuable lessons climate activists can learn from a species so familiar that we take it for granted: the American Robin.

1. It’s good to be common

The American Robin is one of the most common and widespread native birds in North America. This large population gives robins great resilience in the face of ecological and climatic challenges.

Build the movement!

2. Adapt to where you are

Robins are found from steamy southern swamps to the Alaskan tundra. Their remarkable ability to adapt to local conditions and resources is the secret of their success.

Frame your message with regard to local conditions

3. And also have one special skill

For all their adaptability, robins also have a specialized skill: their earthworm-hunting behavior, which opens up a rich resource few other birds exploit.

Know your special talent and make the most of it

4. Figure out how to take advantage of the dominant paradigm

Robins thrive in part because of their ability to make the most of human environments, nesting in our backyards and foraging on our lawns.

Don’t be afraid to make alliances and to engage with mass media

5. Be alert for phonies

Robins are among the few birds able to detect and toss out the eggs of the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird, thus protecting their nests from invaders.

Welcome only those who truly share your values

6. Know when to move on

Throughout their wide range, robins exhibit facultative migration – that is, they adjust their winter residency to conditions. In a cold winter, they head south; if the next year is mild, they may remain resident all year.

Know when to stage a tactical retreat, in order to win another time

7. Produce lots of young

Robins often produce two broods of offspring per year. That gives them a huge advantage compared to less fecund species.

There’s no substitute for the energy and idealism of the young when building a movement.

8. Be confident

Robins are often described as “bold,” “confident,” and “confiding,” in contrast to related birds like the shy Varied Thrush. There is no doubt that the outgoing behavior of robins has contributed greatly to their success.

Believe in your cause whole-heartedly, and others will too.

9. Be friendly

In addition to their boldness, robins appeal to us because they’re friendly – even if they’re keeping us company in the garden in order to snatch up earthworms!

A friendly, positive approach will gain many more listeners than one wrapped in doom and gloom.

10.     Sing!

For many of us, the rich warbling song of the robin announces the arrival of spring, lifting our spirits after the hard winter. Isn’t a beautiful message what we all want to hear?

No matter what, sing!

Pepper Trail is a naturalist and writer in Ashland, Oregon. An earlier version of this essay appeared in High Country News (October 2014).