If spring brings mating displays and nest building, then summer is sure to be filled with baby birds. Lately, everywhere I look I see frazzled parents bringing food to their ravenous offspring. No sooner have they stuffed the moth or grasshopper or beetle or dragonfly down that bottomless gullet than they’re off looking for the next morsel.
Recently I was out birding with a friend when she spied this occupied Bullock’s Oriole nest in a big cottonwood. I was thrilled—I’ve seen plenty of oriole nests in the fall and winter, while the trees are leafless, but I’d never before observed one while it was still in use. We immediately backed away from the tree, not wanting to scare off the parents, and set up our tripods across the street where we could watch the birds.
A minute later, Mama Oriole arrived, beak full of a large insect. The nestlings immediately started fussing, hoping to be chosen to receive the meal. Beaks gaping, they jostled to be noticed. Some cute little squawks obviously meant, “I’m hungry, feed me!”
While only the female oriole builds her distinctive woven nest and incubates the eggs, when the young hatch it takes both parents to keep up with the demand for food and more food. Over the next forty minutes or so, we noticed that it was only the female making deliveries while the male hung out in a nearby field, feeding himself. I can only hope that at some point he’ll relieve his mate, giving her a chance to find her own meals—and maybe a short nap.
The week before, this same sharp-eyed friend had discovered an American Dipper nest, secreted into a crevice in a canyon wall above a rushing stream. We could only see the bottom of the nest, but it must have been occupied. As the parents swooped in with each meal, we could barely make out their skinny legs as they rose up on tiptoe to reach their offspring. Then, food stuffed into the hungry chicks, they’d quickly launch off the ledge to head back upstream for the next meal.
In some cases, the young birds we found had already fledged, although they were still being fed by mom (and often dad). It reminded me of many college students, living away from home but still at least partially supported by generous parents. Some were demanding, such as the fluttering fledgling House Finches in our backyard. Others waited patiently, such as this just-fledged Pygmy Nuthatch we found waiting motionless on a branch while the parents foraged nearby.
Birds tend to fall into two groups. Precocial species are ready to run from the moment their down dries. They come with their brains hard-wired to survive, knowing instinctively how to find food and water on their own from the get-go. Chickens and their relatives, most waterfowl, plovers (such as this Killdeer) and sandpipers are all examples of precocial species.
The opposite of precocial is altricial—those species that require an extended period of care, with the parents supplying food, warmth, and protection, before they can leave the nest and manage on their own. All songbirds are altricial, as are woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and doves, for some examples.
The extended time in the nest serves another purpose. Altricial species have to learn to be birds—how to forage or hunt, and even what songs to sing. As a result, these species—think of parrots and corvids, for example—are typically more intelligent, able to learn and adapt to their surroundings.
No matter how crazy the world gets, it helps to see nature carrying on with every new generation. There’s something about seeing a nest full of youngsters that gives me hope.