You’ve gone to peek at a nest. For a moment, all the little feathered heads regard you with large, dark eyes—and then in a flurry and a tumble they are out of the nest, running every which way along the ground, and their parents are scolding you and swooping among their babies in apparent panic. Oh no! Will the babies be okay?
This is possibly the question I am asked most frequently. Sometimes the inquirer has managed to catch a few of the babies and replace them in the nest, only for the babies to promptly hop back out. Other times the babies have swiftly vanished, and the inquirer—often someone who has watched the nest over the course of weeks, growing attached to their fluffy neighbors—is left, quite suddenly, with silence and absence and a gnawing guilt.
I got my start in ornithology studying the love lives of House Wrens. House Wrens pair up to raise their babies in a manner compellingly analogous to the human “nuclear family;” but, like most birds, both partners also often “cheat” on each other (i.e., copulate with other birds). This means that the male wren may have chicks in other nests besides his own, and he may end up caring for chicks that are not biologically related to him. (Note: edited. The original version of this sentence had a mistake.)
This sets up a number of interesting questions, such as: why cheat on your partner? Are the chicks sired by outside birds somehow better? Do males know when they are caring for chicks who aren’t their own? The answer to the latter question seems pretty clear (no, the males do not know), but the former two are more challenging.
In the spring of 2015, a male House Wren and his mate built their nest inside a nestbox near a honeysuckle. His mate laid her eggs and dutifully incubated them. Then, one morning— cheep! cheep! High-pitched calls and gaping red mouths cried hungry, daddy! and the male wren was off in a paternal tizzy, collecting bugs and delivering them to his new offspring.
It was, maybe, odd that his new offspring weren’t in the nest that he had built. It was, maybe, odd that other, larger birds were also feeding his babies. It might even have been called odd that his mate was still sitting in their nest, atop whole and silent eggs. But— cheep! No time for that! The chicks were hungry!
What this male House Wren was doing, no doubt to the profound irritation of his mate, was feeding the offspring of a pair of Northern Cardinals who had nested in the honeysuckle near his nestbox.
Something is not quite right here. What is it?
The baby bird says “FEED ME!!” but it doesn’t know that you’re not this momma Cliff Swallow.
One of the veterinarians at the animal rehabiliation hospital recently lamented to me that so many animals she sees are “killed with kindness.” The most common problem by far is that of feeding baby birds. Well-meaning rescuers find a baby bird in need; they search the internet and find statements like “Baby birds must be fed every hour or they will die.” Terrified that the bird will starve before they can get it to the animal hospital—maybe the hospital is closed for the night; maybe it’s a 40-minute drive away—they feed the bird. It makes intuitive sense that babies need to eat, after all. What is not intuitive to us is how easy it is to fatally injure a baby bird by feeding it incorrectly.
“Nowhere on the internet says ‘It’s okay to not feed baby birds for a while, they won’t starve,'” the vet said. “And then they come in fed on milk or something, because the internet said that was a good idea, and they die.”
So: It is okay to not feed baby birds for a while. They will not starve in the several hours it takes to get them to the animal hospital. They will not starve overnight if you find them at 6pm and the animal hospital doesn’t open until 9am the next morning. Baby birds expect to fast the night: their parents sleep, after all. The risk to the bird of starvation is much smaller than the risk of a human trying to feed it without the necessary expertise.
The egret chicks at the nesting colony are growing. They’re doing some neat stuff as they grow, like practicing walking very carefully along branches.
But they are also getting up to a lot of nonsense.
Siblings! No fighting, no biting!
Egrets are beautiful, especially in their breeding plumage, when they sport long curved plumes and dramatically colored faces.
Great Egret displaying breeding plumes and a green face.
Snowy Egret with similar plumes and a red face.
Those breeding plumes are so beautiful that demand for them—for decorating women’s hats—almost drove egrets to extinction, and concern for the heavily persecuted egrets is what gave rise to the bird conservation movement in the early 20th century.
Egrets earn those luscious plumes. Before they get to be adults in breeding plumage, egrets must survive a cutthroat childhood in considerably less impressive dress.
Yikes, THAT’S what our chicks look like??