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July 9, 2011 / stephanie

From Nest to Fledge

Robin nestling

Amazingly, I’ve now made it through three quarters of the field season here in Ohio! Just three weeks  to go now, and then I will be making the long, hot (no A/C) drive back to Wisconsin. As my time here winds down, I am seeing that the bird activity has already begun to slow down. The birds seem to be focusing their energy a little more on foraging and a little bit on molting, and a little less on reproduction. Our main focal species, the Northern Cardinal, may continue to nest build and lay up through October, but our secondary species the American Robin starts to call it quits around July.

With the project that I am working on, we are interested in monitoring these nests and paying attention to how many young are produced and whether or not they survive to the point where they’re able to leave the nest behind. It’s not too surprising to learn that most baby birds do not make it. An egg is a nutritious, tasty meal for all kinds of predators, from squirrels to snakes, raccoons, and even other birds. Then once hatched, the nestling has about a week (for a Cardinal) or two weeks (for Robins) to undergo a tremendous growth spurt, going from a tiny pink fleshy blob to being fully-feathered and fit for flight. During that week or two, mom spends less time sitting on them and more time searching for insects to stuff into their gaping mouths. The movements of the parents and the noisy begging calls of the nestlings make them an easy target for observant hawks and cats. When disaster strikes, the nest is left behind, and the parents strike out and start anew. And try, try again, they will. It’s pretty inspirational seeing birds working as hard as they do during the breeding season. I wish I could borrow some of their persistence and motivation and get some more things accomplished myself! But if I borrowed their standards that probably would mean I’d have at least five kids by now. So I guess I’ll leave that part for the birds and sit back and continue enjoying the natural world from an observational perspective.

This summer has been quite interesting since I have spent so much time observing birds during breeding season, which I have never really done before. I feel like I have learned a lot and gained an eye for what we wildlife scientists call “nesty” behaviors (a technical term). Since we must monitor nests, we must first find them, which is not always an easy task. Birds typically try to be sneaky about this kind of thing, but since we are only monitoring birds in yards, there aren’t always a heck of a lot of options. So we search everywhere, but specifically places like shrubs and trees with dense foliage and sometimes the random fencepost, which was the location of the nest in the photo shown above. My favorite way to find birds nests is to watch them build. Usually I key on pairs that are especially active together. With cardinals, the female often chips a lot while she’s building and the male will follow her around, watching closely and guarding his mate. If you get too close, the female might fly away with a twig to lead you astray but then later return to her chosen nest location. The female may take a day or more to finish building, then leave the nest empty for awhile before laying.

Today I watched a female cardinal building her fifth construction of the year. She had two nests that she had never finished building and two other full-term nests that yielded a total three (or possibly four) fledglings. Her older fledgling is fully grown and off on his/her own, her mate is busy feeding the two fledglings just out of the nest and here it goes again! There are at least five outdoor cats that live on this side of the block and there’s a Cooper’s Hawk that makes its home just in the forest bordering their territory. The odds are stacked against them, but we shall see what happens next. Except I might not get to see it myself since I’ll be flying the coop as well in less time than it takes a Cardinal to raise a single brood.

More nests ahead…

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