You scared baby birds out of their nest, oh no! Will they be okay?

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?

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Scary human! I’m outta here. (Photo by Timothy K Hamilton: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bestrated1/)

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.

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What we know about one nest

On July 1, 2013, we caught a female junco who we banded MABY.

MABY

MABY

An already-banded male, ARKM, seemed very upset about this. Sometimes juncos do hang around when we band their mates—it’s rather sweet to see them reunite when the banded birds are released—but ARKM’s behavior seemed different to me, so after we released MABY, I lurked behind a tree and watched.

Sure enough, ARKM went down to the ground: he had a nest.

ARKM and MABY's nest, just under the rock.

ARKM and MABY’s nest, just under the rock.

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The fleeting beauty of the fall molt

As fledglings undergo their fall molt (the Prebasic I molt), their appearance changes from obvious-youngster to apparent-adult. In the middle of that transition, they look a little… wild. It’s a strange and fleeting look, here-today-and-gone-in-two-weeks. We’ve caught enough molting fledglings that I’ve been able to put together a series of photos showing the transition.

Fledgling juncos start out a streaky light brown, with dark bills and yellow gapes.

Young fledgling GRAS

Young fledgling GRAS

As they get older, the yellow gape shrinks.

Older fledgling KALI. Note the remnant of yellow gape at the edge of the bill.

Older fledgling KALI. Note the remnant of yellow gape at the edge of the bill.

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