The season of empty nests is approaching (and in some cases just arrived) – both for people and for birds.
Students graduated high school and college. Adult children are moving out of their parents’ homes, getting married or striking out on their own.
And baby birds are hopping out of their nests, testing their wings and learning how to eat and survive on their own.
For the past week, I’ve been captivated by scenes of the latter in a tree outside my kitchen window. Several bird feeders hang there, attracting a variety of feathered visitors (and some unwelcome bushy-tailed ones) year-round. Some of the “regulars” are chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, various sparrows and woodpeckers, cardinals and rose-breasted grosbeaks, to name a few.
But I recently glanced out and saw a species I couldn’t identify right away.
The bird was a little bigger than a sparrow, but smaller than a robin. It had a thick black beak and its plumage was a rusty brown color that almost looked slate in the shadows and showed a hint of red in the sunlight.
Something about it was strangely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.
That is, until a flash of bright red flew in from one side and landed on a nearby branch.
The mystery bird had the shape of a cardinal (hence my sense of familiarity) but as a fledgling, it was slightly smaller and hadn’t yet developed the bright orange beak and colorful plumage of its kind. Plus its telltale tuft was folded down at first. (Hence my confusion.)
This fledgling cardinal was soon joined by another, presumably its sibling, followed by an adult female. Over the next few days, I watched the youngsters perch in the tree or sit in the grass underneath it, chirping until their mother came over with a beak full of seeds from one of the bird feeders. The adult cardinal distributed the food to her youngsters by placing her beak inside theirs and “spitting” the seeds in.
The father also often visited the feeders with the rest of the family, although I didn’t see him feed the young.
Shortly after I identified the fledgling cardinals, another mystery bird appeared in the tree, but this one seemed to be on its own. It, too, was brownish in color, with a gray tint, especially in the shadows. But it had lighter plumage and streaks on its underparts. At first I misidentified it as some sort of large sparrow or female finch.
This second mystery bird was able to feed itself, but some of its movements were awkward, resembling those of the cardinal fledglings. I suspected it was a juvenile but was unsure of the species until I caught a glimpse of its silhouette (without the markings to trip me up) against the sunny sky.
The shape was undeniably that of a brown-headed cowbird.
Which explained the lack of parental supervision. Cowbirds are brood parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving their young to be raised by another species. They usually hatch before their nest mates and mature a step ahead of them. I suspect this one was a foster sibling of the cardinal fledglings, but I can’t be certain.
Either way, I’ve enjoyed watching the fledglings of both species grow into juveniles, learning more about identifying young birds and solving a couple mysteries.
Who knew empty nest season could be such fun?
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Baby bird FAQs
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology answers some fledgling and baby bird frequently-asked questions on its website, allaboutbirds.org. Here are some of the lab’s empty-nest tips.
■“I found a baby bird. What do I do?”
Short answer: It depends.
The bottom line, according to Cornell, is, “the vast majority of ‘abandoned’ baby birds are perfectly healthy fledglings whose parents are nearby and watching out for them.”
The first step is to determine whether your find is a nestling (mostly featherless and helpless baby bird that should be returned to its nest, if possible) or fledgling (a youngster that’s well-feathered and mobile but may not be able to fly yet, probably with parents nearby watching out for it).
“When fledglings leave their nest they rarely return, so even if you see the nest it’s not a good idea to put the bird back in—it will hop right back out,” Cornell advises. “Usually there is no reason to intervene at all beyond putting the bird on a nearby perch out of harm’s way and keeping pets indoors. The parents may be attending to four or five young scattered in different directions, but they will return to care for the one you have found. You can watch from a distance to make sure the parents are returning to care for the fledgling.”
Nestlings, however, are another story.
“If the baby bird is sparsely feathered and not capable of hopping, walking, flitting, or gripping tightly to your finger, it’s a nestling,” according to the lab. “If so, the nest is almost certainly nearby. If you can find the nest (it may be well hidden), put the bird back as quickly as possible. ... If you have found both parents dead, the young bird is injured, you can’t find the nest, or are absolutely certain that the bird was orphaned, then your best course of action is to bring it to a wildlife rehabilitator.”
A wildlife rehabilitator directory is available online at bit.ly/2ZJWwVP.
■“Can I raise a baby bird I found?”
Short answer: sorry, but no.
The lab strongly advises against trying to raise a wild bird, for two reasons.
“First, it violates federal and state laws, such as the Migratory Bird Act, to possess any wild native American bird for any length of time without proper permits,” the site states. “Second, even with expert care and feeding, people simply cannot provide baby birds with most of the skills they need to negotiate the natural world.”
■“If I handle a baby bird, will the parents abandon it?”
Short answer: no.
“It’s a myth that parent birds will abandon young that have been touched by humans—most birds have a poor sense of smell, and birds in general identify their young using the same cues we humans do—appearance and sound,” according to Cornell. “It’s perfectly safe to pick up a fallen nestling and put it back in the nest, or to carry a fledgling out of danger and place it in a tree or shrub.”
■“If I don’t pick up a baby bird, will my cat or dog kill it?”
Short answer: maybe.
“It might if it gets the chance,” says the lab. “The best thing to do is to keep your pet inside, or leashed well away from the fledgling until the bird is gone. This helpless stage lasts at most a few days, and if you leave the young bird under the care of its parents, it will have a far greater chance of thriving over a lifetime.”
■“After birds leave a nest, can I clean out the nest for future use?”
Short answer: nest boxes, yes; nests, no.
“Most birds don’t reuse their old nests, no matter how clean they are,” explains Cornell. “They typically build a new nest in a new location for each clutch. This reduces the prevalence of parasites—mites and lice lay eggs in nest materials, producing a whole batch of young parasites that would have a head start in attacking a new set of nestlings. Building a new nest in a new location also means predators are less likely to find the nest site before the young birds fledge.
“However, for nest boxes or birdhouses, NestWatch suggests cleaning out the box at the end of the season. This isn’t absolutely necessary; often birds will clean it out themselves, but you can lend them a helping hand.”
For more information about construction, placement and care of nest boxes, visit bit.ly/2KvroWa.