This spring and summer, I’ve had the pleasure of watching various species of birds in my yard care for new offspring until they have fledged (left the nest). My most recent observations came today as I watched three hatchlings jump bravely into their wide new world. This blog will introduce you to some of my new neighbors; two blogs to follow will go back in time to spring and early summer to describe some nesting I witnessed in local parks and reserves.
A dense privet tree next to my carport offered a pair of gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) space to construct a well-hidden nest. I discovered it was there because the parents suddenly began yelling at me loudly whenever I left the carport to walk into the yard and then a bird bander who was visiting managed to locate the nest, which was about 8 feet up so I couldn’t see the eggs in it.
I kept an eye on the shrub and saw the parents were flying in with insects and emerging empty-beaked, so I knew the eggs had hatched. One day, I ventured close and peered through the privet branches and saw a couple little heads sticking up above the nest.
A short time later, the baby birds hopped out of the nest and they stayed in the large shrub for several days as their parents continued bringing them a variety of insects. As I mentioned in a previous blog, the parents were good providers, sometimes bringing more than one type of insect home in their beaks.
A pair of Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) laid five eggs in a nest box in my front yard and I was able to record when all the eggs had been laid. Information provided online about time to hatching (12 to 14 days) alerted me as to when I might see newborns. Only four of the five eggs hatched; the fifth one was broken. I also checked how long it takes for hatchlings to develop until they leave the nest – that can take 16-21 days but usually 17-18 days.
The bluebird parents were diligent about bringing food, mostly caterpillars and insects but supplemented by wild raspberries and dried meal worms that I had made available. It turned out this brood wasn’t too interested in the meal worms; I found a layer of them in the nest when the babies fledged.
Close to fledging, the parents began showing protective behavior – chasing squirrels out of the large tree in front of the nest box, flying at other birds that came too close, keeping an eye on me as I sat near the box. Mama and papa removed fecal sacs frequently, flying off with them to a considerable distance from the nest. Only once did I see a parent actually swallow the fecal sac.
Mama investigated something odd at the edge of the box one day, flying down to look closely at the gap between the box wall and door. When I looked, I didn’t see anything. She also would occasionally hover in front of the nest box opening, as if she was demonstrating to the babies what they had to do.
I was lucky enough to see all four babies leave the nest. Two of them were definitely stronger than the other two, who couldn’t fly as well and who didn’t seem to have feathers that were so well developed. When I moved close to take photos, the cautious parents dive-bombed me and the young eventually moved across the street. I never saw the young ones at my feeders.
These past few weeks, some bluebirds raised a second brood in my backyard. This nest had some history. First, three eggs were laid, with a pair of bluebirds visiting the nest occasionally. Unfortunately, one day I saw a Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) swoop in and it looked like the raptor had caught one of the bluebirds. In any event, the eggs were abandoned. After a few weeks, I had just decided to clean out the nest with eggs when I suddenly saw another pair of bluebirds building a new nest on top of the old one. They, too, laid three eggs.
Using the guidance given to me by the Smithsonian Institute’s Backyard Nestwatch Project, I checked the box every three days until the eggs hatched and then every two days to check on the nestlings’ well-being.
I was surprised that the mother was not sitting on the eggs much of the time, but the local Audubon chapter president told me that when the weather is very hot, the parent will not brood because it could become too warm inside the box.
The parents were quite diligent in bringing food to the hungry babies. They occasionally visited my mealworm and suet feeders but mostly just to feed themselves. They appeared to be feeding their babies an exclusive diet of caterpillars and insects and a little bit of suet – no mealworms though.
They were busy removing fecal sacs as well and I discovered that the baby birds actually present the sac to the parent by sticking up their behinds so the parent can pull out the sac. That made for a couple unusual photos!
I had calculated that today or tomorrow would likely be fledging day so after a doctor’s appointment and grocery shopping, I settled into a canopy chair to observe the box. The parents were very busy bringing food but also taking time to sit in the crepe myrtle tree across from the box to call to their little ones. The nestlings were now sticking their heads out of the box so I figured that fledging was imminent.
As I watched the parents and nestlings for an hour, I also looked around at the other bird activity in the yard. Suddenly, I saw an immature red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) take interest in the nestlings and it swooped over to the box. I feared for the little ones but one of the parents descended on the larger bird to drive it away from their temporary home.
After a while, I thought bird No. 1 was going to jump but at the last minute s/he crawled back inside. I was occasionally turning my head to observe other birds at feeders and just as I turned my head again, action erupted.
I was warned because the bluebird parents swooped down from the crepe myrtle tree to fly straight at my head under the canopy of my chair – they were not taking any chances! It turned out that bird No. 1 had flown by me and landed on the side of my screened-in porch, which was where I had been looking.
The parents continued to fly at me, perhaps 6 or 7 times coming very close to my face, so I went on the porch so that they could calm down. Then they began chasing other birds as their young one had flown from the porch to a tree. While they were occupied, I went back to the chair and was able to see babies 2 and 3 jump from the nest box.
It was a partly cloudy, partly sunny morning for the fledging today and then a few hours after the bluebird young flew, the rain began. There has only been a little thunder and no lightning so perhaps this will just be a nice steady rain that we can use and not severe weather. I do feel a little sorry for the new members of our local bluebird society, however, as they have to face getting sodden on their first day outdoors. The parents are visiting the mealworm feeder now; I hope I get to see the babies at my feeders the coming days. In any event, they made my morning very enjoyable indeed and I have a third nesting report to add to Backyard Nestwatch!
P.S. I have higher-resolution photos for sale as prints or photo cards; let me know if you ever want a particular one!
I felt like watching the real birds as I read and looked at your pictures!
I’m glad you enjoyed it, Malai! I have seen the parents but not the babies since then but hopefully they are making it in their new world.
Thank you for your blog about bluebirds. So pleased to read and see photos of exactly what I’m experiencing in my yard. I am on my second nesting just since March. I am in awe watching what seems to be parents teaching juvenile bb how the nesting is done. the other two birds that are hanging around the working parents, if you will, look like females. Again, great blog.
Glad you enjoyed it, Tracy! The bluebirds avoided my nest boxes for their first broods this year but now I have a pair with a second brood in my yard, plus juveniles from the first broods eating the meal worms I put out. Right now I’m also monitoring a catbird nest, in the same bush where the catbirds had babies last year. I hope you are around when the bluebirds fledge in your yard!!