from birdnote: the antics of baby birds

american-robin-juvenile-Carmen-Elliott-2004A MAMA (OR IS IT PAPA?) CATBIRD AND I are on serious speaking terms. That is, (s)he talks a lot, and loudly, when I go about watering or weeding two shrubby areas by the house, and I know why: baby birds! I asked Ellen Blackstone of the public-radio show BirdNote for some insights into how the nestlings become fledglings and beyond.

In the story that follows, Ellen provided me with green links to audio files from BirdNote’s archive that you won’t want to miss; click them. A link to earlier stories in our ongoing series is at the bottom of the page, along with information on how to get BirdNote daily–and if you want to give thanks to nonprofit BirdNote for all their wonderful avian “aha’s,” you can do so at this link.

I’ve been able to spy the nests of about 10 species of birds in the 2014 garden, of the 60ish species who visit me each year, and know that more avian families are doing a better job of concealing theirs.

Baby birds—often a more-flecked, stubby version of their parents, like the American robin up top or those flickers below—are learning the first ropes toward adulthood:

Baby-Flickr-© 2008 Debra Hukriede flickr.com-hummybird53They’re busily practicing maneuvers, like these baby bald eagles in a BirdNote show, and generally making themselves known with peeps and squawks.

Like a human baby, young birds babble while they listen to their parents’ song and try to master it—like this Bewick’s wren fledgling is doing.

Baby robins, for example, spend 15 days in the nest after hatching, but even once they take those first outings, they’re not fully prepared for the wide world alone. Listen to the story.

Baby starlings continue to rely on their parents after leaving the nest, too—and may even beg for food, drooping their wings, bowing their head, and squawking, like this. Great horned owl babies, gulls, and others beg, too—and the chipping sparrow’s baby boys do some serious begging themselves.

“Feed me,” they are all saying. “Feed me.”

Rock-Pigeon-Juvenile-Mark-Coates-2009Some birds stay in the nest until they’re nearly adult-size, such as pigeons (which is why BirdNote bets you’ve never seen a “baby” one, except in the photo above). Stay-at-home pigeons.

For the ultimate in baby-bird cute factor, the duck called the common merganser is a serious contender.

As for a serious can-you-believe-this factor: A baby barn owl weighs more than its parents. (And don’t come anywhere near—or those lighter-weight parents will act like the heavies toward you.)

I was dive-bombed aggressively for a couple of weeks in June by a pair of tree swallows, but I didn’t need to get too close to the nest box they’d adopted, because I could hear all the little voices inside, even from quite a distance. A good-sized family, I’d say. (Four to seven eggs per clutch is that species’ range.)

adult & juvenile Cedar Waxwings © Mike HamiltonThe two nesting cedar waxwing pairs in my front yard were rattled when my garden Open Days took place, and suddenly their chosen habitat (near a giant old Eastern red cedar, by the way) was the site of a plant sale and more hubbub. Above, a juvenile and an adult waxwing.

Wren Mama yelled at me each time I rode by on the tractor, mowing the upper area where she’d chosen a nest box of her own; there were robins and cardinals in vines and shrubs alongside the front and back porches, as usual.

No bluebirds took possession of a nest box this spring, through they flirted with it, as is the typical dance of spring. The tree swallows won out, but then the up-the-hill swallow family vacated, and guess what? Mr. Bluebird took control about a week ago, and seems optimistic about his chances of a late date with some local female. Hope springs eternal, I guess—even in early summer. (Bluebirds can technically have up to three clutches.)

Important: Hands off baby birds. If you come upon a baby bird who appears to have “fallen” from the nest, the general advice is to leave it alone (and of course keep all cats indoors). The details on why, and when to intervene.

how to get birdnote

birdnote logo

FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog. All of our past stories together are archived at this link.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

birdnote q&a: what birds eat

(Edit)Yellow-billed Cuckoo © Phil Brown-600WHAT DO BIRDS EAT? The answer isn’t “birdseed,” despite those flying feathered pigs devouring feeder contents extra-fast this extra-cold winter. Our BirdNote correspondent Ellen Blackstone shares some surprises about hummingbirds (it isn’t all about finding red flowers, and yes, they eat bugs); who eats ants for dinner (and who uses them as a grooming aid); why almost nobody likes monarch butterflies; why birds get drunk on one too many fermented fruit, and more.

In the Q&A that follows, Ellen’s answers contain green links to audio files from BirdNote’s archive that you won’t want to miss. A recap of earlier stories in our ongoing series is at the bottom of the page, along with information on how to get BirdNote daily–and if you want to give thanks to nonprofit BirdNote for all their wonderful avian “aha’s,” you can do so at this link.

House Finches © Gilbert & HendersonQ. I’ve read that flamingoes’ plumage may be more or less colorful depending on their diet, but is this true of other bird species, too?

A. What on earth does the lowly house finch have in common with the elegant, long-legged flamingo? They are what they eat. In color, that is. The carotenoids in their diets affect what color they are.  Carotenoids are the same pigments that give oranges and carrots–and brine shrimp–their color. Male house finches will develop brighter plumage when they’re growing in new feathers, if they eat more fruits containing carotenoids. If you see a house finch that looks more yellow than red, like the one above left, it simply hasn’t been getting enough carotenoids (more on that)!

Q. Are any birds strict vegetarians, meaning no insects eaten?

A. House finches eat almost exclusively seeds and other plant matter. Their cousins, American goldfinches, are–according to Cornell’s All About Birds–”among the strictest vegetarians in the bird world.”

Most songbirds, though, eat insects as at least part of their diet. Even the birds that are vegetarians as adults generally feed some insects to their young. And many migrate southward in late summer or autumn, when insects are on the wane.

Anna's hummingbird by Tom GreyQ. Aren’t hummingbirds vegetarian—in that they feast on nectar?

A. Actually, hummingbirds are meat-eaters, too—meaning they do include insects in their diet.

We generally think of hummingbirds hovering among beautiful red flowers. But baby birds in the nest need protein to grow, just as humans do. So their mamas feed them insects in addition to nectar.

Many hummingbirds also take advantage of sapsucker wells, dining on both the sap and the insects attracted to the sap.

Oh, and although we’ve been led to believe that hummingbirds prefer red flowers, the fact is that they prefer flowers with the most nectar. Although hummingbirds’ eyes have a heightened sensitivity to colors in the red to yellow range, given the choice, they’ll ignore color and head for the most nectar-rich flowers, like this.

Q. Of course, hummingbirds have specially designed beaks so that they can sip from flowers, especially tubular ones. I love how some species’ beaks give you a hint of what they can manage to eat, such as grosbeaks and crossbills.

A. True! Grosbeaks’ beaks like the one below hint at their ability to crack open tough seeds. So do crossbills’ beaks, which are built for feasting on seeds of cones. More on specialized beaks or bills, including of shorebirds.

Black headed grosbeak, by Tom GreyQ. So what won’t birds eat in the insect world? I know that some species of caterpillars, for instance, have co-evolved with avian predators to develop unappealing colorations and other defenses—fascinating stuff!

A. Monarch butterflies taste so bad that most birds shun them, for one important example. (In fact, viceroy butterflies look so much like monarchs that birds shun them, too.) But black-headed grosbeaks (above) find monarchs quite tasty, thank you.

Cuckoos, both yellow-billed (top photo) and black-billed, like to feast on another tasty morsel that many birds find distasteful: tent caterpillars. Ugh! While other birds may pick a caterpillar apart, cuckoos actually eat the whole thing, fuzz and all. When the fuzz in a cuckoo’s stomach finally reaches critical mass, the bird throws up the entire stomach lining and grows a new one. The story.

"Northern Flicker"Q. What about ants?

A. Ants are both food and a grooming aid for many birds, especially woodpeckers. While we may think of woodpeckers on tree trunks, Northern flickers (above) are most often found on the ground, scooting along, picking up ants. (John James Audubon noted that the flicker tastes “very disagreeable, it having a strong flavour of ants,” but that’s a story for another day…)

Watch for a crow to pick up an ant and use it to stroke its feathers, an act birders smilingly call “formication.” The formic acid in the fluid released by some ants must serve to repel pests.

Q. We have to mention it, though everyone screams in horror: Some birds prey on other birds.

A. Yes, some people find it downright distressing that certain birds, raptors in particular, eat mostly other birds.  Except for the tiny American kestrel, which favors mice, voles, insects, and such, birds of the falcon family capture almost all their prey in mid-air. And for those larger falcons, from the sleek merlin to the majestic gyrfalcon, that means birds.

Cedar waxwing by Tom GreyQ. At this time of year or even later winter, flocks of robins and waxwings (like the cedar waxwings in the photo above) visit and seem to get drunk on rotten fruit still hanging on my crabapples and apple trees. Why are they attracted to it?

A. You may picture an American robin, bob-bob-bobbin’ along on your lawn, searching for worms. But that robin appreciates a ripe cherry or berry, too, as any gardener knows. Now, it seems that robins can’t smell, so they wouldn’t know if a berry had spoiled – or fermented. So it’s no surprise that robins–and waxwings, too!–may eat until they nearly fall over, when feasting on fermented berries.

Orioles, too, are fruit-eaters. Baltimore orioles and their cousins, orchard orioles and Altamira orioles, are especially drawn to orange slices and even jelly. Serve ‘em up!

how to get birdnote

birdnote logo

FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

past installments of our series

IN CASE YOU MISSED anything from my ongoing series with the daily public-radio show BirdNote, all the episodes are archived at this link, including these:

(Photo credits: Flickers by Debra Hukriede; robin baby by Carmen Elliott; waxwings by Mike Hamilton; juvenile pigeon by Mark Coates.)

13 comments
July 1, 2014

comments

  1. Bill says

    The catbird is my favorite of birds. Sleek look and wonderful songs,calls. I have noticed a marked increase in their numbers in my area of Central Jersey, which is another reason to celebrate. Thanks for the heads up concerning BirdNote, I am now a daily addict!

  2. Barbara Robinson says

    I was alarmed to see a bluejay going after a fledgling cardinal. It was the loud calls of the cardinals that drew my attention. I have since seen them go after many other fledglings and have found half eaten babies on my roof where only another bird could reach. I don’t remember this much activity and carnage from bluejays. Is this a common event?

    • margaret says

      Hi, Barbara. Blue jays are sometimes not very kind to others when searching for food to feed their own protein-hungry youngsters, it seems, and do raid nests (as do house sparrows and some other birds). Here’s what Cornell Lab of Ornithology said about that in response to a reader question:

      “Your Blue Jay is, indeed, determined, and once it’s discovered a nest, those babies are pretty much doomed. Blue Jays seldom eat young birds or eggs themselves, but their own growing young require a lot of protein, so usually when jays do raid a nest, they do a complete job of it…. It’s part of the balance of nature, but it’s a lot easier to accept for those of us who love jays. Most of the year they eat only plant material, insects, and some carrion, and most birds like having them around, at least a little away from their nests, because jays warn them of every other danger.”

  3. Lorie says

    It’s a real delight, when enough species return yearly, to discover their patterns and housing desires. This year the number of orioles was astounding (and they were enormously hungry for jelly), the hummers are so bountiful and busy that it is a real curiosity as to what has put them into overdrive. The cherry on top is the summer tanager who comes to the feeder inches from the window.

  4. Dennis R says

    on my black oil sunflower feeder, i find that the finch clan (red, house & gold) are the bullies. they intimidate the chickadees, tit mice & nuthatches. the’peckers seem to hold their own. & my flickers send the entire “finchii” scooting for the yonder trees.

  5. linda hall says

    Our local western bluebirds are on their third clutch of eggs this summer. They got started in May due to our warm spring this year. Its interesting to note that 2 fledglings from the last clutch are still hanging around with the Daddy bluebird (the Mom is sitting on eggs now). They are really good fliers, and are learning to find their own food, although there is still a lot of begging going on. It’s really exciting to have a bluebird house….we have had a total of 24 bluebird babies since the beginning of 2011!

  6. Michelle says

    Margaret, you have a new young fan. My 7 y/o has recently developed a passion for birds. His first grade class wrapped up the school year researching and presenting a science poster on an animal of their choice. While many chose lions and tigers he picked the woodpecker and has been fascinated ever since. We went through your archives and found the link to woodpecker sounds which he listened to several times.
    We have been spying on a family of cardinals out my bedroom window for awhile and just a bit of time ago ended up w/ an up close encounter. I was on the deck and abridged ruckus occurred. The cardinals as well as the marauders landed on the edge of our pool and the cardinal fledgling slipped in. I scooped it out w/ a skimmer and laid it in the grass. As I write it is still sitting there w/ the anxious parents on nearby tree branches. We came inside in hopes it will rejoin its family, especially since my terrier is scratching at the door to go out and my husband is hoping to mow : )

    Question I have been asked to relay to you from Noah; what kind of woodpeckers come to your yard in NY? We see the red bellied and downy in our WI yard.

  7. says

    I live in an area where there are lots of bald eagles, and I’ve been hearing the baby eagles screaming for attention. And I love watching the brown babies swoop and dive – even in their awkwardness, they’re awesome to watch :)

    Thanks for the Birdnote links – fascinating!

    • Michelle says

      How wonderful to see eagles everyday. Before parenthood, when I had more time and money, my girlfriend and I made an annual March trip along The Mississippi River in Minnesota. We’d travel up and down Hwy 61 with Bob Dylan on the car stereo stopping along the way when we spotted eagles. Wabasha, MN has a great eagle watching platform. It was so awe-inspiring that we were always sad to leave.

      I believe the baby cardinal is fine. I stepped out to check and the male was down in the grass with the baby. I snuck back inside and when I checked next it was gone. I think it was a territorial dispute, not a hunt. The nest is in a shrub and the neighboring shrub is a hangout for finches and chickadees. It happened so fast and my attention was on the baby after it slipped in the water, so I didn’t see what the other birds were but they were not bigger than the cardinals.

      • says

        Fond memories huh? I do appreciate being able to share space with such gorgeous birds here – I live in Maryland on the Octoraro river.

        And thank you for letting us know the rest of the cardinal story – it’s an exciting time of year, with so many young ones around. Happy to hear it was a peaceful ending :)

  8. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says

    Incredibly, along with a prey-oriented dog within our fenced yard and garden, there is a Vesper Sparrow in her ground nest with 6 eggs in it right now. It is a brand new bird around here with a distinctive song and the habit of nesting on the ground which is also a first for my property. I placed concentric rows of wire fencing amongst the perennials and sedum groundcover to discourage my 55 pound dog from getting to the nest. After the sparrow babies are born, I fear it will be even more difficult. I will remain vigilant.

    We enjoy nesting birds of many species annually in our 100% organic garden and yard. Chickadees chose a hanging wooden birdhouse on the front porch this spring. Each year there are more birdhouses and more bird couples choosing our place to reproduce.

    The BirdNote addition to your blog is very much appreciated. Hard to separate birding from gardening.

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