The nest that came back from the dead

This summer we have lost nests to logging, cows, and natural junco predators. None of those shocked me. A pinecone as death-dealer, however, was a surprise.

2013_NCB1When I took this picture, I thought that this nest was dead. The chick you see was completely motionless and stone cold. The pinecone—which was not supposed to be in the nest—had (we think) prevented the female from warming her chicks up, and without their mother’s warmth these very young, naked chicks quickly got too cold.

But when I took the pinecone out to count chick bodies, one of the bodies moved. My field assistant and I took the chicks—there were three, all as cold as the morning mountaintop air—in our warm hands. I still thought they were probably dead: recently dead things may twitch when disturbed.

But as the tiny bodies began to feel less chilly, they squirmed more and more.

2013_NCB2The biggest one gaped and tried to sit up. Its little siblings were too young to attempt that, but were clearly also alive.


When they were as fully warmed as we could manage (human body temperature is lower than that of birds), we put them back in the nest—minus the pinecone!—and retreated. The female had been angrily chipping at us as we revived her chicks, so we knew she had not yet abandoned the nest.

I had heard that very young chicks may be able to survive periods of cold, but had never seen it firsthand. It was truly a unique experience. I have encountered a lot of motionless, cold animals, and never before had one come back to life in my hand.

When we most recently checked the nest, all three chicks had grown and there was no sign of their brush with pinecone death.


19 thoughts on “The nest that came back from the dead

  1. That is one dangerous looking pinecone! Your timing must have been excellent. Did you breathe on them to help warm them?

    • A friend told me that breathing on things to warm them can be bad because the humidity in your breath can condense on the object, then cool it by evaporating. I’ll admit I haven’t investigated this yet, but I have provisionally stopped breathing on things to warm them, in case it is true.

  2. Pingback: Update on The Nest That Came Back | Tough Little Birds

  3. Oh, dear! I hope there is still hope for the little baby junco I just found on the pavement under the nest that fell from under our neighbours’ balcony. I photographed the mama on the nest just a couple of hours before that, everything seemed fine. Next thing I know – the nest is on the ground, upside down, the baby is under the nest (in pretty much the same condition as in your photos), with ants crawling all over it. The baby moved a few times, just a tiny bit, so I decided to put it back in the nest and the nest back where it was. I did not keep it in my hands, and maybe I should have. Looks like it’s going to be a cold night. :(

      • I didn’t see the mom on the nest after that, although a couple of adult juncos did hang around in a nearby tree a couple of times. A week later I saw the nest on the ground again. No baby (or baby body) in sight this time. Maybe it got eaten. I can’t think of a positive development that would have been realistic under the circumstances. But at least now I know what to do if that happens again! (Thanks to your blog, among other sources.)

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  5. The nest in my bush had 4 eggs; 3 hatched. I got too close to the nest today and they all scattered! The one egg remains. Will it eventually hatch? Will the babies come back? Where did they go? Into anther bush? The parents are still hanging around……..

    • Sounds like the chicks were ready to leave the nest! They have probably gone into another bush, yes, and will hide for the next week or so while the parents continue to feed them. It’s normal for baby birds to leave the nest before they are entirely able to fly, and to hide while they grow in the rest of the their feathers. As long as you’re still seeing the parents around, the chicks are probably fine. (You can help by keeping any cats or dogs indoors for the next 7-10 days to protect the chicks, who right now won’t be very good at escaping from predators.)

      That last egg won’t hatch, I’m afraid – it was probably infertile or otherwise inviable. It’s pretty common for birds to have one egg not hatch.

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