baby birds: an intimate look inside the nest, with julie zickefoose
IT’S NESTING SEASON, and what better time to talk “Baby Birds”? That’s the title of wildlife rehabilitator and artist Julie Zickefoose’s newest book, and she shared with me some of what she saw, and learned, in creating it.
You’ll hear me say “wow” and “oh!” and “that’s crazy” and “amazing” a lot in the audio version of this interview—because it all is.
I see a lot of birds in my garden, but my experience their offspring is limited, frankly. This year’s phoebe is incubating her clutch on the back porch, atop a stereo speaker as every spring, and when pruning a white pine out back I came upon a mourning dove nest holding two big eggs. Tree swallows have laid claim to two nest boxes, and hairy woodpeckers picked a tree near the compost heap, so my frequent comings and goings over that way elicit much disapproving comment. But I don’t often dare peek into nests at hatchlings and see fledglings—especially not the way Julie does.
In “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest,” she uses more than 400 watercolor paintings and the stories of her intimate encounters to bring the unseen to light, illuminating the survival strategies and developmental stages of 17 species. Amazing.
Read along as you listen to the May 9, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
my q&a on baby birds, with julie zickefoose
Q. I made a promise to myself that this would be the year that I really noticed who’s nesting where and got to know not just the adult birds of the garden but also more of the babies. So your new book “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest” came at just the right time–thank you!
A. It’s a time when a lot of people are waking up to birds, and how wonderful they really are.
Q. How did the book come together? I mentioned that you are a wildlife rehabilitator and an artist.
A. It’s a natural outgrowth of how I’ve lived and drawn and thought and written all my life. I have from a very early age kept journals, and illustrated them. It was only natural for me to want to share the miracles I saw in the bluebird boxes I was checking all summer long.
Since I have a good array of birds nesting in those boxes—not just bluebirds, but Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, tree swallows, bluebirds, Carolina wrens—right there I had six subjects. They were well-protected in my boxes, which were baffled against predations; nothing could climb up to them because there was a stovepipe baffle on the pile mount. So it was there for the picking.
As a wildlife rehabilitator it was legal for me to handle and feed and care for them, so it was natural for me to start drawing them, and it was very, very exciting.
Q. So you just said, “predation.” To use your words from a previous conversation we had, baby birds are “a sitting buffet” for predators. That reality has influenced how they have evolved how they nest, hatch and fledge. Let’s talk about the process and the triggers—and maybe first: some of the glossary of great words involved with this, about baby birds and the condition they’re born in.
A. There are altricial birds [above], and most birds we’re familiar with, songbirds, are altricial. They lie in the nest cup helpless, and their parents feed them. Their eyes may not even open for a week or so. Then there are precocial birds—like ruffed grouse, turkeys, pheasants, chickens, shore birds, sandpipers—that get up with wide-open beady bright eyes and follow their parents right away after hatching.
There is really a lot of difference between the two, and all the birds that I studied were essentially altricial—helpless at birth, though some were less helpless than others.
Q. If people have looked into a familiar nest like a robin’s, they’re like little naked things.
A. Right. They’re almost formless; they look like little blobs of pink protoplasm. To see this thing start sprouting feathers and growing up is just the most compelling thing. And it’s even more wonderful to draw it.
Q. And they’re growing up quickly, because there is no time to waste—it’s too dangerous to hang around, right?
A. The nest is the most dangerous place that a bird will ever be, because they’re rooted in one place for as long as it takes them to grow feathers and to get the strength to climb out of the nest.
The open-cup nesters like robins, song sparrows, chipping sparrows, indigo buntings, cardinals—they leave the nest as fast as possible. That results in some baby birds that fledge as early as Day 7 to Day 9.
Q. Wow. Days 7 to 9 they’re taking their first flight—leaving the nest, or just hopping out on a branch, maybe?
A. Yes, calling it a first flight is a bit kind. [Laughter.]
Q. I thought I got a little over-ambitious there.
A. Some of them can. A baby cuckoo can fly a bit at Day 8, a yellow-billed cuckoo. But most of them, say an indigo bunting or a cardinal that fledges at Day 9, they still have big parts of their body that isn’t covered with feathers. They are sort of half-naked, and have almost no tail at all and really short, stubby wings. They don’t look ready for primetime. But all they really have to do is be able to cling to a branch, clamber or flutter a little ways, and their parents will find them in the shrubbery to feed.
They keep in touch with their parents with these little contact calls, or chippering calls, so that their parents can come and find them, whenever they are.
Q. It’s pretty wonderful—a real privilege to see a baby bird, and I have to say I don’t see enough of them. Though I know the parents, I wouldn’t necessarily recognize their babies. So your book—the pictures—really helps.
Occasionally I’ll find a nestling on the ground so I’ll learn one species—like a phoebe last year, one who was sitting in the grass, having left the nest on the back porch. As you say, Mom was talking to it across the yard. But I didn’t know what a baby phoebe looked like until then.
A. They can look quite different. Like a baby bluebird [above] is all-over gray and spangled with white, and has just a hint of blue in the wing and tail, so you can sometimes guess. But they often look quite different from the parents.
Q. As we speak and tape this on the last days of April I’m waiting for the arrival of indigo buntings. Is the fact that your home is called Indigo Hill a coincidence or do you enjoy that vivid little bird, too?
A. We named it on purpose. My husband Bill and I were trying to think of a name for our then-40-acre farm (we have since expanded it to 80) that didn’t sound pretentious, or too hoity-toity.
One evening we were bantering about names on the back deck, and an indigo bunting flew over in flight song, which is something they do all summer long and is fantastic. I just looked at Bill and said, “Indigo Hill.” That’s all there is to it. It came naturally. They’re abundant on our place and nest on the borders of the old meadows. They like sumac, they like young shrubs growing up. And they also like wide-open fields because they feed on weed seeds.
Q. I didn’t know that, and I don’t know where they nest here. I read in the book that it took some time for you to find the nest that you write about.
A. They’re very clever. I found this little female that I named Mrs. Piper, and I knew this pair for three years.
A. I knew the husband—husband! [laughter]—because he sang every morning around 5 AM on a farm bell right outside my bedroom window. So I named him Piper, from “Wind in the Willows.” Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I saw his mate gathering coco fiber from one of my hanging baskets. I saw her carrying this toward the garage, but it took me quite a bit more time before I spooked her off the nest, and she was almost done incubating three eggs.
It was total happenstance that I found it, and I was so honored to be able to draw the hatching of their young, and the fledging and post-fledging period.
Q. I loved the fact you mentioned in the book about why male doesn’t feed incubating mate—as you say, Mrs. Piper, not that we anthropomorphize or anything, Julie [laughter]—you should hear me talking to this particular squirrel I have known for three seasons now, because he’s black instead of gray and was wounded when he was young and has a bare patch on his back—not mange, thankfully. I confess: We have a conversation everyday, too.
So why doesn’t the male indigo bunting feed his mate when she’s incubating the eggs, or his young?
A. Well, he’s the color of a piece of blue tarpaulin—the brightest color you’ve ever seen. It’s not a good idea for him to keep coming to the nest. Indigo bunting male’s job is to breed with the female, and protect the territory from interlopers, protect his mate from others who might mate with her.
Indigo buntings are birds of very flexible moral character.
Q. [Laughter.] Philanderers did you say they are?
A. Yes. Both sexes. The females will sneak off and mate with other males, and the males will sneak into other males’ territories and mate with their mates. So he has a job to do, and that’s basically singing all day—fending off rivals, and keeping them away from his mate and his territory.
He would draw attention to the nest by visiting it, and so he has no attachment to the young; it’s all up to her, and she’s cryptically colored, a soft cocoa brown. She just takes care of everything.
One of the things I speculate about, is why indigo buntings breed so late in the season. One of the reasons is probably that the weeds seeds they need to eat come rip then, and they feed crickets and grasshoppers to their young, and caterpillars, and all that food is abundant then.
But the other thing that occurred to me is that if she is going to raise the young [above] herself, and have to leave and forage and get food herself, it had better be hot, so she can leave those young alone in the nest—without having to worry about keeping them warm.
Q. You remind me when you say breeding late, I never understood until many years into knowing something about birds that goldfinches also nest rather late.
A. Very late—you’ll see them nesting in July and August. You’ll see them feeding young in September on birch seeds. They’ll sit right up in our birch trees and feed them birch seeds.
Each species is delicately timed to the food abundances that it needs, and it’s not going to commence breeding until it’s sure it has a good, reliable food supply.
Q. At milkweed time—do the goldfinch use that floss?
A. They’re more closely associated with thistles.
Q. Thistles—excuse me, yes. In my head I am visualizing what it looks like. At that time of year I will see them come take spider webs from the corners of my windows—not that I am not the best housekeeper outside [laughter]—but I’m lucky and have a lot of spiders.
They will come and gather the spider webs, and it’s the most magical thing.
A. What a wonderful thing to see. I’ve seen hummingbirds collecting cobwebs, but I don’t think I’ve seen goldfinches.
Goldfinch nests are beautiful. They’re made of plant down—thistle down—bound with cobwebs and they’re just a wonderful little creation.
Q. I have also seen the great crested flycatcher—that’s a tongue twister if you say it too quickly—does it live in the Midwest?
A. Oh, yes.
Q. I’ve seen it hunt in the stone walls where I have a lot of snakes that use the warm stones to slough off their old skins. The great crested flycatcher comes and looks and carries away snakeskins.
A. You’ve been lucky.
Q. If you sit and stare out the window long enough [laughter]…
A. ….looking for inspiration.
Q. ….what you see. That’s another potential nest material I didn’t know about.
A. Great crested flycatchers use them almost for ornament.
A. They trail the snakeskins out the hole. They’re cavity nesters, and in fact it’s one of my favorite nature quizzes. If I’m walking by the hole and see that, I say, “Now how did that snakeskin get 30 feet up in a tree?”
They trail the snakeskin out of the hole, and there is lots of speculation about that. The thought is perhaps a predatory bird might not want to go near a place where a snake had just gone in, shedding its skin as it went.
Q. Smart stuff.
A. Kind of neat stuff. Although I had a pair in Virginia use a piece of angel-hair insulation instead of a snakeskin and trail that out of the hole.
Q. There is a chapter in the book about mourning doves, and I know you have a special affection for them. I think they’re underappreciated.
Q. An individual always sits on the peak of my roof and sings most afternoons this time of year, and in summer as well. I don’t know what it is about that spot, but it looks like a hood ornament. And I love their crazy-colorful little legs and the way they waddle around, and the distinctive sound when they take flight. I like that, too.
A. Yes, pretty wonderful, isn’t it? I love mourning doves [above], and I think people don’t give them enough credit for being smart . They’re actually really fascinating birds. They were especially interesting to me because I was intrigued by the question of how a bird that subsists entirely on a vegetarian diet manages to fledge its baby fully feathered and flying pretty well at Day 12.
So these things hatch—there are always two; it’s an obligate clutch of two—and they are flying and out of the nest by Day 12, which is extremely fast to grow a big bird like that. Looking into it, I knew they fed their young by regurgitation, and they make a certain curdlike substance in their crop called crop milk, or pigeon milk.
They are unique among birds with the flamingos and the penguins in being able to produce food in their crop that has nothing to do with the food they have ingested. It’s almost like lactating.
A. Basically it’s the epithelial lining of the crop, which is an enlargement of the esophagus; it sloughs off in response to the hormone prolactin, which is the same hormone that makes us lactate…
A. …yeah, and they create this stuff that has this amazing nutritional content to it. It’s extremely high in fat and protein. The dry analysis reveals a composition of 57 percent protein and 34 percent fat and no carbohydrate.
Q. Isn’t that insane? How can that be?
A. Isn’t that neat? I know, I know. They’re basically almost lactating; that’s really all I can explain. They feed this for about the first five or six days, and these babies just grow exponentially. The babies just grow like nothing you’ve ever seen.
That’s one of the really fun things about this book—that you get to look inside the nest and learn things you had no idea happened.
Q. In a way, when I turned some of the pages, I though like, “Oh, I shouldn’t be looking!” It’s such a secret place; it has been hidden from me. I know a lot of birds—but I don’t know them at this stage in their life.
A. Yes, it’s certainly a “don’t try this at home” thing [laughter]. Some people are sort of appalled that I have been handling baby birds and taking them out of the nest and painting them and then putting them back in. But I make sure that I am not going to compromise their safety by doing that.
I have to have absolutely secure situations, like baffled boxes or nests that I can access without attracting predators. This is why it took me 13 years to amass the species that I studied in this book.
But yes, it’s a privileged view. Because I knew how to feed them and care for them while I was doing this, I could do this without compromising them at all. In fact, there were several nests that only made it because I was there to ward off predatory snakes and that kind of thing. Because I was watching the nest, there were several babies who were saved from death by strangling on nest materials and things like that. All kinds of stuff—I think people who watch nest cams know that all kinds of weird stuff goes on in birds’ nests. [Laughter.]
Q. One of the things you said about touching them: You make clear in the beginning of the book that what people think is a conventional wisdom—that if the mother bird smells human touch on them, she’ll abandon them—is not true, right?
A. That’s not the case. Songbirds have no sense of smell that we can discern, and they also are very strongly bonded to their young, and don’t desert them just because they have seen a human being near them. They really have a lot of interest in taking care of their young.
But it’s a good thing that people stay out of their nests, and that we think we shouldn’t touch baby birds, because we shouldn’t.
Q. What was the one that broke your heart—the one that when you saw inside the nest was just “beyond?’”
A. Yes, I’d say the yellow-billed cuckoo is the bird that’s so strange and so wonderful that I was absolutely on fire to paint them, because they leave the nest at Day 7.
Q. That’s crazy.
A. And not only that, they’re fully feathered at Day 8, and they develop so quickly and they are so bizarre to look at and paint that it didn’t really break my heart, but it set me on fire is all I can say. [Above, cuckoos at Day 2.]
And finding out something about the nesting cycle of a bird that is completed from the laying of the first egg to the fledging of the young in only 17 days. The egg incubates for only 11 days, and the baby is in the nest for only a week.
Q. What’s the craziest-looking nest you saw? The one with the snakeskin hanging out of it sounds a little crazy. [Laughter.]
A. The house sparrow nest in my yard was pretty funny, because it was full of feathers from my macaw, and cardinal feathers, and bits of trash and candy wrappers—whatever they can find. Cellophane they really like. They’re kind of the junkmeisters. I describe them as the lame North American bowerbird.
Q. Maybe we should call it tramp art to elevate it. [Laughter.]
A. That would work; they are little tramps.
Q. So sparrow nests were all gussied up. I’m always shocked when I seen an oriole nest, because that seems preposterous, doesn’t it, hanging like that?
A. I’ve got an oriole nest that someone gave me that’s constructed entirely of plastic fibers they pulled from an old tarp—that cellophane-looking plastic fiber. Beautifully woven of plastic.
I’ve also seen a city pigeon nest—a rock pigeon’s—made up entirely from the curls of a metal lathe. And a raven nest made entirely of barbed wire—the little piece that the rancher went and clipped off
Q. And it went and collected them? It’s amazing.
julie’s website and books
enter to win a copy of ‘baby birds’
I’LL BUY ONE lucky reader a copy of “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest,” by Julie Zickefoose. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box, all the way down the page after the very last reader comment:
Who’s nesting in your garden, or who usually does?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like, “Count me in,” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Sunday, May 15, 2016. US only; good luck to all.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 9, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(All illustrations copyright Julie Zickefoose, from “Baby Birds.” Used with permission. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)