Avian generations in the making – part 1: courtship

The tragedies being faced in the Caribbean islands after hurricanes Maria, Jose and Irma are horrible and other than donate cash to help alleviate the needs, I’m not in a position to offer more assistance. I’m grateful for all those who can and hope government assistance will be forthcoming to help all the people in those nations recover.
The effects of the hurricanes also will be noticeable for the wildlife. Many of those living on land will drown or die of hunger; some birds may be a little luckier – able to shelter against the winds if they are native to a place or able to change their migratory pattern (e.g., delay arrival on wintering grounds) for a time. But when the effects of the storms are immense with lots of habitat destruction, the birds, too, will lack places to shelter and not have sufficient food supplies to survive.

It’s thought that some birds endemic to the islands may be severely endangered as a species. On 22 September, birders were happy to hear that eight Barbuda warblers (Setophaga subita) had been spotted on that island; not a lot but they may help ensure this tiny bird doesn’t become extinct.  At the time of writing this blog, the fate of some other bird species was still unknown. I hope that all the Caribbean bird species survive and will be thinking of them as I share this series with you on how birds take measures to ensure future generations. (It might seem odd to write this series now, but some birds are still feeding their young here.)

So, the process begins with courtship. Some birds mate for life, or at least form long-term (multiple-year) bonded relationships. They include bald eagles, black vultures, blue jays, Canada geese, white-breasted nuthatches, brown-headed nuthatches, Northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees, American crows, pileated woodpeckers and my favorite raptor shown above, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus).

Those who form ongoing bonds may have a courtship period that consists of the male bringing the female some food to indicate it’s time to get ready for nest-building. This was the case for these lovely Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis).

The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) has a similar behavior; in my yard, I sometimes throw out bits of apple or bread for them in the spring as these seem to be considered real treats. The female will sit on a branch overhead calling until the male brings her some – and sometimes almost shoves it down her throat!

The Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) males will sing their repertoire in the spring to entice female mates – often they perch on the top of trees and fly up and down with spread wings in a beautiful display while singing.

        

   

The yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) seeks new mates each year but has an interesting courtship behavior described by All About Birds: “A receptive female perches with its head up, pumping its tail slowly up and down…Just prior to mating, the male Yellow-Billed Cuckoo snaps off a short twig that he presents to the female as he perches on her back and leans over her shoulder. Both birds then grasp the twig as they copulate.”

 

     

 

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) females and males may both flutter between trees with slow wingbeats. Two females may also compete for the attention of a single male, a behavior I observed this past spring and which surprised me.

 

     

The male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) will vocalize for the female while spreading his wings in a display.

The killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) has a somewhat prettier courtship dance, bending forward and spreading its tail feathers to show off the colorful underside.

  

Next year, I hope to see more of the birds courting as it gives me a happy feeling.

The next step for the birds is nest-building. We don’t have the bowerbirds in North Carolina, who build elaborate nests as part of their courtship. But the species we have do spend a good deal of time on their nests and I’ll share some of their efforts in the next part of the series. (But one or two blogs on another topic will come first.)

 

Credit map: By Kmusser (Own work, all data from Vector Map.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A cuckoo causing confusion and consternation, delight and distress….

In the spring this year, I and another birder had the uncommon pleasure of seeing yellow-billed cuckoos (Coccyzus americanus) courting at Mason Farm Biological Reserve. These birds often stay high in trees, hidden by leaves, so it is always a treat to see one of them out in the open. Seeing two together, as the male tenderly offered his lady love a gift, was an unexpected pleasure.

 

 

Also unexpected have been my more frequent sightings of cuckoos in my yard. Last year, I had caught a glimpse of one in a crepe myrtle tree; I thought it was a lucky fluke. This year, I began to see cuckoos in the large trees of my front yard more often, though frequently they were half hidden behind the leaves of the willow oak, red cedar and persimmon. I did hear their identifying calls so I knew when they were around but not in sight.

Then, this past Sunday afternoon as I sat on my front porch photographing birds and insects visiting my flower garden, I suddenly caught sight of a cuckoo flapping about on a makeshift trellis I had arranged around an oak stump where I hope Carolina jasmine and other climbing vines will create a pleasing area.

The spot is popular with chipmunks and Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), as well as many smaller birds like Renee, one of the banded Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) living in my yard.

     

But to see a large cuckoo sprawled on the branches was unexpected and I feared that it had an injured wing after escaping from a hawk attack. I took a few quick photos. Then I approached to get a better look — the bird tried to flutter away but didn’t get far.

I ran inside to get a box and the phone number of a local wildlife rehabilitator. I left a message and managed to get the bird in the box, to which it protested vigorously. When I closed the top, it calmed down and then the rehabilitator returned my call stating that perhaps it was a fledgling – I said it looked like the wing was injured so she asked me to take a photo of it.

When she saw my point-and-shoot camera photo, she said it wasn’t clear whether it was a juvenile or not and asked me to photograph the beak. Young birds have a yellow or bright “lining” where the beak meets the face. This area is called the gape flange and in most birds, the color disappears as they age and the beak becomes firmer.

      

With a slightly better photo of the bird’s head and beak, the rehabilitator informed me that this was indeed a young bird. She also told me that the bird probably was feigning a wing injury to get the parents to come back more quickly with food! On her recommendation, I put the bird back on a stump by the makeshift lattice.

I knew about killdeer adults pretending to have a broken wing and dragging it on the ground to lead predators away from a nesting area. The yellow-billed cuckoo adults will also do this distraction display.

But I had not heard of fledglings engaging in this ruse. The rehabilitator said she had known of crow fledglings that kept this up a couple days, although she didn’t realize cuckoos would do this as she doesn’t get many calls about this species. But, she commented, “birds aren’t stupid; a free meal is a free meal.”

I kept checking on the bird and it stayed on the stump quite a while. Then it hopped down into the leaf litter and made its way over to some large rocks under a cedar tree with low-hanging branches. First, the cuckoo just hung out on the rock. And all this time, it kept that wing stretched out.

Then the bird lunged upward to get onto the branch. At this point, I seriously wondered whether it wasn’t injured after all, perhaps having fallen out of the nest and hurting its wing when it landed. It got a purchase on the limb and continued to keep its wing out. Then it fell off the branch.

       

After a short rest on the rock, the fledgling jumped up on to the branch again and stayed there. I went inside and returned periodically to check on him/her. About 3.5 hours from time I first saw him/her, the bird was still resting on the branch with the wing out. S/he was no longer wary when I came to look but viewed me calmly.

About 30 minutes later, I went back outside for another check and found the bird on the branch, but now with its wings both folded in towards its body. I was really glad that it appeared to be ok and hoped the parents would come for it. I had heard them calling earlier in the afternoon but never saw them approach the offspring, though this may have happened when I went inside for brief periods. And when I finally looked at the first photos I had shot in quick succession, I saw a couple where the bird had drawn in both wings to hop about, only to stretch out its wing later again.

 

When it was almost time for me to leave for a theater engagement with a friend, I went back out to check one more time and discovered my cuckoo friend was gone. I examined the cedar tree to see if it was further up, as well as the trees and ground all around, and could find no sign of him/her. I hoped that s/he finally decided to give up the display and just flew to a better place. I did check the area the next two days but did not see the bird again.

Then, this morning, a distressing finding started off my day. When I went outside, a neighbor boy was staring at the ground in front of my street-side willow oak. When I got there, the cuckoo lay dead at the street edge. He said he had seen the bird yesterday sitting on the road “with a broken wing”. I wish I had seen it – I don’t know if the bird had really been injured after all, was feigning an injury and then fell prey to a neighbor’s cat (which is what I think happened as its underside looked like it might have been in a cat’s mouth), or if something else occurred. In any event, it was such a sad discovery.

I buried the cuckoo while regretting how short its life was. I’m glad I don’t let my cats roam about anymore and I wish neighbors would also keep their felines inside, even though I know that birds might fall prey to a hawk or die because of a disease. But I wish I’d been able to help this beautiful young bird. My emotions tell me the cuckoos won’t return but my mind says they won’t avoid the yard because they lost an offspring. Time will tell.