Avian generations in the making – part 3A: raising and feeding babies

So here in North America, it’s approaching winter and it may seem a bit weird to have another blog at this time on birds raising their young. But I wanted to complete the series even though it has been delayed because of my volunteer activities and commitments the past month. Also, it is now late spring in the Southern hemisphere so for some people this is seasonal and there are other birds around them that are getting ready for babies, though different species than these American robins (Turdus migratorius). Because this part kept growing longer as I worked on it, I’ve divided it into two parts – this one on raising the babies until fledging and the next one on fledging and post-fledgling care. I hope all of you who read this will enjoy it no matter where you live.

It’s fascinating to me to watch the birds during their reproductive cycle; I always learn something new. Once parent birds have completed a nest to their liking, the female lays her eggs and proceeds to brood them, with some species sitting on the eggs almost full time right away and others taking breaks.


Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)              Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

An acquaintance recently told me about a friend of hers who commented that she had seen a very pregnant goose that was so fat, she was waddling. The acquaintance proceeded to give an avian reproduction lesson to her friend – a woman in her 80s – who apparently did not know all birds lay eggs! Even after babies hatch, the Canada goose (Branta canadensis) may still look well-fed!

Some bird species have young who are “precocial”, that is, they are covered with downy feathers and have open eyes when they hatch and are soon able to feed themselves. These species include turkeys and ducks, like these mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), and the young often leave the nest soon after birth (which makes them “nidifugous” – good Scrabble word!). The newborns may look fuzzy but it’s not long before they start to take after their parents’ looks.

Other birds, such as songbirds, are altricial (as are human beings) – they are naked and helpless at birth and require considerable care before they can walk, fly and feed themselves. If you have some in a nest that is easily observable (and you can take photos when parents are not there so you don’t distress them), it’s interesting to see how the babies develop.


Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) on 18 and 22 April           

Brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) on 13, 25 and 29 April



Eastern bluebirds (below)


As the mother incubates the eggs, her mate will often feed her so she doesn’t have to leave the nest. This young osprey (Pandion haliaetus) was assiduous in bringing his female life companion fish. Then as the babies hatch, in many species both the male and female parents get busy bringing the young frequent meals.  It’s estimated that Carolina chickadees, for example, will bring over 5000 insects to their brood before fledging!

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)


House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)  and Red-headed woodpecker                (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)


Orchard oriole (Icterus spurius)                  Blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea


Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

In some species, the previous year’s young will help their parents with the new brood. Brown-headed nuthatches and American crows are examples of this. A pair of Canada geese that I observed this past spring seemed to have a domestic goose helping them out.

The parents have other chores, too. They must keep the babies safe from predators – Both American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) will be chased away by songbirds, for example, because these birds will raid nests to eat eggs and babies. But the grackles must also protect their own young against the crows, pursuing them non-stop to drive them away.


For other birds, protecting the young can be more difficult. This mother wood duck (Aix sponsa) was raising her brood in a pond that was home to at least three large snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina). Ultimately, another birder and I thought she only had two ducklings survive.   

Keeping the nest reasonably clean is another chore. The babies make this task a little easier than you might think because they defecate into a mucous membrane that forms a sac. When you watch a nest box, especially when it gets closer to fledging time, you can periodically see the parents flying out of the box with a white blob in their mouth, which turns out to be a fecal sac. They either discard it elsewhere or sometimes eat it for some nutritional benefit.


Brown-headed nuthatches

This year, I was surprised to have caught a female blue grosbeak during the cleaning – it appeared that she was actually pulling the fecal sac from the baby! Later, I read that some species stimulate defecation by prodding the babies’ cloaca so they can get on with the chore. I also caught a photo in which a baby bluebird had just presented its rear end to the parent for removal of a sac. I could imagine that some human parents might think a fecal sac would be a cool avian adaptation for their babies to have – no more dirty diapers and expense for diapers either! (An idea for an SF short story?)



After all their efforts, the parents are usually ready for those babies to fledge – the subject of the upcoming last blog in the series.



* Not all the photos in this blog are of great quality, I know, but my intention was first to show behaviors and secondarily to have some nice shots in the blog.



Avian generations in the making – part 2B: nesting in nature

My last blog looked at birds’ nests in man-made structures and there are plenty of birds who take the opportunity to use such sites. Most birds, however, make their homes out in nature – in shrubs, trees and on the ground. This is a bit of a long blog but I want to share views of different species at work.

There are different types of nests; a few types that we see in North Carolina include:

  • Cavity nests – holes in trees, made by the parents themselves or adopted as a home when birds like the cavities made by others
  • Simple scrapes – these are shallow depressions scratched out on the ground and they may be lined with materials or left to look like the rest of the surrounding ground
  • Cup-shaped nests – these structures are like small bowls and may be lined with materials like those used in nest box nests. They can be made of varied materials – swallows use mud while American robins and other birds use plant materials.
  • Platform nests – these nests are usually quite large and comprise large twigs and small branches
  • Plate nests are a bit similar to platform nests but much smaller and less organized; they may consist simply of a few twigs arranged in a shallow bundle
  • Pendant nests hang from branches.

When birds look for a cavity site, they may seek out a new spot on a tree trunk or investigate already existing cavities. These Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) at Sandy Creek Park were examining one particular hole with interest, but a downy woodpecker was interested as well so there was some rivalry. The female bluebird chose to just sit on a nearby branch while her mate looked at the hole numerous times trying to make a decision.


Red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) excavate larger cavities in tree trunks to raise their broods. They may visit various trees before deciding on a spot.


Pileated woodpeckers (Hylatomus pileatus) may use the same holes year after year. They make holes for resting as well as for nesting and often include a “back door” so they can make a quick escape if a snake shows up.


Brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla), like this one at Jordan Lake, can be very industrious in excavating their nest cavities. You can watch them pecking away at the wood of a tree trunk or branch, scattering wood shavings and removing bigger bits of softened wood in their beaks to achieve a hole of the right depth for their babies. (See a short video of one at work here.)


I also saw nuthatches making nests on the edges of a farm and near the NC Botanical Garden. The pair working on a nest at the Garden were doing this with a great horned owl on a branch overhead, as well as a red-tailed hawk and crows who were raising a racket. Their presence didn’t bother the little birds; these nuthatches also appeared to have help from a previous year’s youngster willing to help the parents raise the new siblings.




Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) also dig out small holes in trees and snags.


Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) use scrape nests which may look exactly like the surrounding area; their eggs then blend in really well with the environment and can be difficult to see.

When I first saw this nest suspended from a tree near a bridge, I had no idea which bird had built it. A birding friend had fortunately seen the parent bird fly to the nest – it belonged to a Northern parula like the one shown below (Setophaga americana).


I was lucky to see a female orchard oriole (Icterus spurius) collecting nice soft lining materials for its nest this past spring.


A red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) was doing the same with cattails – an obviously appropriate source for bird bedding!


Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) and Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) make fairly shallow, twiggy nests (“plate nests”). It makes you wonder if eggs ever roll out of them through cracks in the loose, low walls.


Many birds make cup nests and spend a good amount of time collecting the materials to produce them. Here you see American robins (Turdus migratorius) gathering grasses – they tend to fill their mouths as much as possible before flying off to the nest-in-the making.


Red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus) will also attempt to get several pieces of bark into their beaks before flying back to the home site. The photos here are dark as the bird was deep in shrubs where little light was penetrating.


Blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) weave what looks like a cross between a pendant nest and a cup nest; they also add man-made materials such as rags, cellophane, newspaper and bits of plastic.


Great blue herons and ospreys are builders of platform nests.The great blue herons (Ardea herodias) carry large twigs and branches to furnish a nest. At Sandy Creek Park they have been using the same tree-top platforms for several years now.


Last year, I saw this osprey pair (Pandion haliaetus) build their first nest from scratch; they weren’t enthusiastic about me being in the vicinity and would perch or fly overhead to give me “the evil eye” – sometimes calling to one another to sound the alert that they had spotted me down below.



This year, they were busy refurbishing the nest – these birds with longer-term mates may use the same nest year after year. Again, they would stop their work to stare me down.


The Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens) makes a cup nest that is well-hidden among the leaves of the tree spot it chooses. A friend saw the pair constructing this nest and it was done by the time I visited. It seemed quite a tight fit for mom to sit in while brooding her eggs.

The bird whom I enjoy seeing most during nest construction is the blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). These little birds are very active and often don’t sit still for long as they feed in shrubs and trees. When they are busy making a new home though, they take their time to do a good job. First, they locate good locations for the materials they use – leaves, spider web to hold the leaves together and pieces of lichen to cover the outside walls.


They affix the lichen carefully to make a really beautiful, compact and elegant little cup. The female then sits in it and moves her body to ensure it gets the right shape and dimensions for her upcoming brooding.


The male and female both work hard on the nests and this year I got to see three pairs at work. In two cases, it was lucky I saw them flying to and fro because their nests blended in really well with the tree.

Unlike the cavity and platform nesters, the cup and pendant nesters usually need to build a new nest each year. At the end of the summer, for example, the blue-gray gnatcatcher nest had already deteriorated considerably with the rain and wind, even though it was a fairly calm and dry season.


Once the nest is complete, the avian parents brood and feed their babies before fledging and this will be the third part of this series. For now, I leave you with the male and female ospreys as they watch the birdwatcher….


Braeburn Farm is for the birds!

I don’t often get the chance to visit a farm (other than organized farm tours, which are a bit pricey and then might be crowded). Last year, I was invited to one during an annual llama shearing, which was educational. This year, however, I’ve had the chance to visit Braeburn Farm four times so far because the owner and manager have decided to make it a nature reserve as well as a cattle farm. Nick, the land manager, is a birder who is more than willing to share his knowledge with the visitors.

pond I77A6227© Maria de Bruyn res

My first visit to this farmland/nature reserve was in the early spring to see Wilson’s snipes at one of the five ponds. By late June, these birds had moved on but the ponds were now harboring mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) and killdeer (Charadrius vociferous).

mallard duck I77A7320© Maria de Bruyn res     red-winged blackbird I77A6920© Maria de Bruyn res

belted kingfisher I77A6936© Maria de Bruyn (2)   killdeer I77A6934© Maria de Bruyn res

My quest to see green herons at one pond was unsuccessful, but my 20-minute walk there was accompanied by the non-stop screaming of a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), who called both from tree tops and the air as she circled overhead.

red-tailed hawk I77A6030© Maria de Bruyn res   red-tailed hawk I77A6044© Maria de Bruyn res

A non-native bird who might greet you as you come down the road near the farm manager’s home is a helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris), the sole survivor of a neighbor’s flock. This bird now comes to visit the domestic chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) at Braeburn, perhaps seeking some companionship in addition to the easily available chicken feed.

helmeted guineafowl I77A5648© Maria de Bruyn res    chicken I77A6958© Maria de Bruyn (2)

chicken I77A6949© Maria de Bruyn resThe farm chickens are in a large pen while other chickens run free, including one with a wild hairdo.

A trio of wild turkeys left the woods and entered a field during one of my visits but they were at a considerable distance; still, I could say I had seen them that day! The Eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) have often been visible at a distance in the fields, but on my last visit I saw one a bit closer on a fence post, giving me the chance to enjoy its beautiful plumage.


Eastern meadowlark I77A8597© Maria de Bruyn    Eastern meadowlark I77A5898© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern kingbird I77A5683© Maria de Bruyn res


Eastern kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) can be seen in many of the fields and on wires. They take advantage of the ponds to snag dragonfly meals and the dry grasses provide materials for nests.


Eastern kingbird I77A7653© Maria de Bruyn        Eastern kingbird I77A7099© Maria de Bruyn res

They also pose very prettily on the shrubbery!

Eastern kingbird I77A7007© Maria de Bruyn   Eastern kingbird I77A6380© Maria de Bruyn res

grasshopper sparrow I77A7118© Maria de Bruyn res


The grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) are numerous, which was lovely for me as this species was a lifer for me. If you approach on foot, they fly off, but Nick said they are so used to his motorized cart, they stay put as he chugs on by!


grasshopper sparrow I77A6976© Maria de Bruyn res      grasshopper sparrow I77A5738© Maria de Bruyn res

Savannah sparrow I77A8690© Maria de Bruyn res


In the spring, when we had gone to see the snipes, we were lucky to see savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) running about in the grass (I had at first thought we were seeing field mice scurrying about).




orchard oriole I77A7271© Maria de Bruyn resIn June, a pair of orchard orioles (Icterus scpurius) had built a nest in a tree bordering one pond and I was excited to see two babies just days before they fledged. The father was feeding them and brought one baby a large cricket, which seemed to be too large for it swallow easily. Dad tried to help by pushing it down but when I left, the insect was still sticking out of baby’s mouth and its sibling was still hungry, too.

orchard oriole I77A7475© Maria de Bruyn res

orchard oriole I77A7510© Maria de Bruyn    orchard oriole I77A7500© Maria de Bruyn

barn swallow I77A7161© Maria de Bruyn resThe barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) adopted an abandoned barn as their hotel of choice. When I visited in June, the young had just been fledging; they and their parents were circling the barn and resting on fences nearby, showing off their beautiful colors.

In July, a few stragglers remained in nests. Some that had taken the great leap were hanging around outside, even clutching the barn wall.

barn swallow I77A7062© Maria de Bruyn res        barn swallow IMG_4527© Maria de Bruyn

barn swallow I77A7145© Maria de Bruyn res

barn swallow I77A7139© Maria de Bruyn res

Others were enjoying the view on a wire line, together with some purple martins.

barn swallow I77A6990© Maria de Bruyn res

The fence posts and other farm structures offer resting places for various birds, like the Eastern wood peewee (Contopus virens), chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) and Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

Eastern wood-peewee I77A6694© Maria de Bruyn res    Eastern wood peewee I77A6675© Maria de Bruyn res

chipping sparrow I77A6665© Maria de Bruyn res   house finch I77A6529© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird I77A5859© Maria de Bruyn res  Eastern bluebird I77A5847© Maria de Bruyn res

turkey vulture I77A7105© Maria de Bruyn res


The turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) take advantage of the cattle’s well-water stations to get a drink, but then may retire to a tree branch for a bit of sunning. Nick likes them better than the black vultures, who had killed a newborn calf when its mother wasn’t taking care of it.



turkey vulture I77A7107© Maria de Bruyn res    turkey vulture IMG_4469© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern mockingbird I77A7669© Maria de Bruyn res


Other birds, like the Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) and great-crested flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus) enjoy the view from the vantage of high branches in trees.


great-crested flycatcher I77A7199© Maria de Bruyn res     great-crested flycatcher I77A7193© Maria de Bruyn res

While the 500-acre farm is mostly advertised in relation to its beef and opportunities to hold events such as receptions there, the farm management is now increasingly promoting it as a place for wildlife observation as well. The biodiversity in birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and plants is wonderful and my next blog will focus on examples of the non-avian wildlife to be seen there. If you’d like to visit the farm, do contact them!