The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 4: growing into adult plumage

As mentioned in a previous blog, when young birds are ready to leave the nest, they don’t necessarily look like their parents. Many of the altricial birds (ready to move about and forage on their own) may resemble fluffy versions of the adults, as is the case with these hooded merganser ducklings (Lophodytes cucullatus) following their mother.

The brown-headed nuthatch babies (Sitta pusilla) look very much like their parents. Sharp-eyed observers might notice that the tops of their heads are not as brown as those of their parents.

The Eastern meadowlark juveniles (Sturnella magna) resemble their parents but lack the bright yellow and black coloring on the throat and breast.

 

The difference between adult and juvenile downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) is subtle. The female woodpecker has no coloring on the top of her head, which is simply bedecked with the white and black feathers that cover the rest of her body.

The male woodpecker has a red patch on the back of his head.

The immature woodpecker has a red patch on top if the head and this is lost as the bird reaches adulthood.

The Northern mockingbird youngling (Mimus polyglottos) resembles mom and dad quite a bit except for some spotty streaking on the chest.

In other species, the babies start out looking quite different from their parents. Spots characterize many members of the thrush family, with birds like wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) and hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) retaining the spots in adulthood.

   

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and American robins (Turdus migratorius), on the other hand, are only strongly speckled as immature birds, losing their spots as they mature.

In some cases, the birds undergo color changes. Male summer tanagers (Piranga rubra) start out yellow-orange with their reddish coloring appearing in patches until they finally achieve their very bright adult red hue. Some of the immature birds are really quite beautiful with their mottled colors.

 

   

The male blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) start out brown and gradually achieve their dark blue feathers with some reddish/brown wing accents.

 

 

Among the birds that undergo a major change are the European starlings (Sturnis vulgaris). The young birds start out with dullish brown or gray hues with some streaking. Eventually, they begin to develop some spotting and then ultimately achieve the beautiful adult summer glossy feathering with green and purple hues mixed in.

 

 

The females of the Eastern towhee species (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) have a brown back above a white breast with reddish sides, while the males have black backs.

The young developing towhees keep you guessing as to their sex since they undergo quite a lot of color changes as they develop. They do have the white in their tails, which helps you identify them as to species.

 

  And then we come to the hawks and owls. It is not unusual for the young raptors to look nothing at all like their parents. The red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) start out looking like fluffy and then becoming gradually kind of scruffy looking.

     

As they get a little older and leave the nest, they start to resemble their parents more but have more streaking on the breast. As they near adulthood, they look much more like mom and dad.

 

And we end with an example of another raptor. There is a real difference between the baby great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) and its parent as you can see. Many birds are impressed by the adults but ooh and aah over the nestlings. It must be the combination of those big eyes and fluffy feathers that take away attention from the already formidable claws!

               

Next up – a foray into the world of amphibians and reptiles!

Winter wonderland – the bigger and colorful birds

In this second-to-last blog of the snowstorm series, I’d like to feature the bigger and colorful birds who demonstrated how they adapted their feeding habits to the prevailing weather. The Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) actually didn’t change their behavior that much – they looked on the ground for fallen seeds and spent plenty of time at the feeders.

They spent some time in the snow-laden trees looking lovely, too.

  

  

The Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) usually spend their time foraging underneath the feeders in search of fallen seed and they continued that behavior during the snowstorm. Unfortunately, the female was carrying a tick; I had already seen a robin and a junco with ticks on their faces – this may mean that the coming spring and summer will be an especially bad tick seasonal period for us.

 

The beautiful brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) looked both on the ground and at the feeders for his meals. Despite his size, s/he never bullied any other bird.

 

 

 

   

The remaining juniper berries on the red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) attracted the blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata).

The Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) was also seeking food there.

 

 

 

 

The cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) and American robins (Turdus migratorius) had already been eating the juniper berries in the autumn; the waxwings had been by about a week earlier but now the robins were all over the trees, shaking off accumulated snow to get at the remaining fruit.

 

 

One robin looked as if s/he might have lost some outer feathers but it didn’t seem to affect her balance or flight. Occasionally, a robin also visited the meal worm feeder.

  

On the days following the big snowfall, as the snow melted more and more, the robins began eating it. During a previous snow event, they had joined the cedar waxwings on the roof of my house to get their drinks that way; now they were taking the snow from the trees.

They weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the opportunity. The Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus), who did not visit the feeder, spent a lot of time in an oak tree near the feeders eating snow.

 

  

There were a few birds that visit my yard who didn’t show up during the snow. They included the American crows and the hawks who often make the birds scatter from the feeders: the Cooper’s, sharp-shinned, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. They must have been looking for food elsewhere.

Some birds may have also avoided the feeders because of the large number of competitors who showed up, a feature of the next and last blog in this series.

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….

  

Avian generations in the making – part 2A: nesting and man-made construction

Hi folks — today I’d like to share with you some of my observations on the second part of avian reproduction — the process in which birds make a nest and lay eggs. (By the way, if you look up “bird nesting” on the Internet, the search will lead you to a human activity: a shared custody arrangement where children reside in one house and the parents take turns living there with them. In the bird world, some avian parents will actually share a home, such as this very old and enormous sociable weaver nest (Philetairus socius) that I saw in Namibia.)

Females of a few species will deposit their eggs in the nests of another, such as some cuckoos and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). Some people dislike cowbirds intensely because of their nest parasitism (the cowbird baby will hatch first and eat all the food or perhaps get rid of the other eggs or babies). I figure that this is how the cowbird evolved – it didn’t make a choice to wipe out other species so I can’t blame or hate the bird for it. But the cowbirds do appear to pick on particular species as involuntary “foster parents” and this may be affecting the success of the other species’ reproduction.

There are two general broad categories of bird nests – those located in or on man-made objects such as nest boxes, atop downspouts, in vehicles, in plant pots and other places and those constructed by birds in trees, shrubs and on the ground (i.e., the natural environment which I will discuss in the next blog so this doesn’t get too long!). When birds make a nest in a “human area”, people will often try to accommodate them, not using the object or vehicle or making the space safer. For example, when American robins (Turdus migratorius) put a nest on one of my downspouts, I covered the rainwater container underneath it so the fledglings wouldn’t drown when they leapt to freedom. (I did it just in time, too!)

Swallows and phoebes will also use human constructions as places to situate their homes. The cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) gather up mud, making countless trips to wad up small balls of the material to carry back to a place like this pier at Cane Creek Reservoir where they line up their nests in a row.

   

Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) locate their nests inside, using rafters to place a nest; they may end up sharing space with paper wasps and organ pipe mud dauber wasps (Trypoxylon politum), which doesn’t seem to bother them.

The Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) may use an inside corner of a patio overhang as a site that is conveniently accessible from outside.

Purple martins (Progne subis) living east of the Rocky Mountains almost exclusively nest in homes provided by people. The hanging gourd nests can be seen in fields but nowadays other types of plastic constructions are also used.

    

In order to attract barn owls (Tyto alba) back to areas where many traditional barns have been razed, people are also placing special boxes in fields with plenty of open space in front of them so that the owls will have a hunting territory adjacent to their front door. Made of heavy plastic, these boxes may be monitored by organized groups in an effort to document their use.

   

At the Mason Farm Biological Reserve, an eagle scout project involved bringing in cranes to attach very large nest boxes to the tops of trees for barred owls (Strix varia) – so far, I have only seen Eastern gray squirrels making use of these nests.

And then there are the nest boxes that people put up to attract Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) and screech owls. In my yard, other birds use these boxes, too, including the Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) such as my one-legged,  banded friend Chantal, Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) who may puzzle about how to get a long twig into the box and house wrens (Troglodytes aedon), who pile up twigs in a rather untidy stack inside the box.

   

   

Chickadees construct lovely mossy nests lined with hair, fur or plant fibers.

      

The nuthatches have nests with bark strips.

    

Sometimes people will intervene when a nest is in danger. A Carolina wren put her nest into a boat at Cane Creek Reservoir that was rented out to people and keeping the nest there was not a good option as she would be missing her nest for hours when the boat was gone. The land manager was so kind as to relocate the nest into a tree right in front of the boat’s resting place; unfortunately, inclement weather caused the nest to dislodge that evening.

   

Another danger may also threaten the birds and their nests – predators. A friend and I found it unusual to see a tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) putting a nest in a bluebird box on the edges of a farm. Several days later, we saw a black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) peering out of the box and the swallows were nowhere to be seen.

   

If you can manage to mount your boxes on poles rather than trees, put both squirrel and raccoon baffles on them and also place them away from overhanging branches, they should stay relatively safe from the squirrels, snakes and raccoons. Next up: birds’ nests with no human connections.