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.
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!
I’ve seen a lot of junco nests in my four years of field work. Rarely, I’ve been lucky enough to happen upon the nest of something other than a junco. I don’t find enough of these other nests to study them, so they don’t help me in my research—but boy, is it fun to find them!
Quick review: this is a junco nest.
This is not a junco nest:
Some major differences: the junco’s is a ground nest, while this one is a cup nest, suspended above the ground in the branches of a bush. The chicks are covered in light greyish fuzz instead of the junco chicks’ dark fuzz, and are maybe a bit stockier than the junco chicks.
Growing up, I used to watch the Mallards breeding in the local pond every summer. The female would start out with many tiny, adorable ducklings; then, day by day, their number would shrink. I remember not understanding why I couldn’t take a few of the little fluffballs home and have them for myself. (Well, aside from the fact that a city apartment is perhaps not the optimal environment in which to keep ducks.) When so many died anyway, would they be missed? And wouldn’t I really be saving them by taking them?
I’ve been seeing similar sentiments on the internet lately: people who have found out how dangerous it is to be a baby bird asking whether it wouldn’t be best to preemptively “save” the chicks from their probable fate. They are babies in danger, after all—shouldn’t any good person help babies in danger?
Shouldn’t I just keep little YAMM for myself?
The simplest answer is that one should not steal away baby birds because it is illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—but that isn’t an answer likely to ease the consciences of animal lovers. So I’d like to talk about what it means to help wild animals, and when “helping” can be a really, really bad thing.
It’s rare that I have photos of the process of banding a nest, since usually everyone is holding a chick and we don’t have any extra hands for photographic documentation. For a few nests, however, I was lucky enough to have my father with us, and boy does he like to photograph things! Thanks to him I can show you what it looks like when we band a nest.
EDIT: If you click on these (or any photos on this blog) you can see them bigger.
The nest, tucked next to the clump of plants in the center. If you look closely you can see Mom sitting on it.
Me taking the chicks from the nest, with Kyle ready to catch any runners.
Photo by M. LaBarbera
Often when you approach the nest, the female will flare her tail and spread her wings and run around on the ground to try to draw your attention away from the nest. This is a tail-on view of Mom doing that.
Photo by M. LaBarbera
Mom, angrily chipping at us.
Photo by M. LaBarbera
Nesting moms, are you having trouble fitting all your babies into one nest? Your troubles are over! We’ve got photos to inspire you to fit all those babies into one nest in an elegant, orderly way. A successful breeding season doesn’t have to mean clutter anymore!
These eggs are a mess. Look at that one shoved under the others. Don’t let this be your nest!
If you get too close to a nest or a young fledgling, the parent juncos will often give a repeated, angry chip call. I don’t understand how this could possibly be adaptive—I would understand a snake-like hiss, or a tiger roar, but no one’s scared of “chip”—but as silly as it is for the parents to broadcast, effectively, “My nest is here, don’t come find it!” I do appreciate the help.
On our last trip we noticed SNAE and his unbanded mate chipping insistently.
SNAE. I photograph all the juncos I catch from several angles like this; the color standard card you see in the background lets me compare colors among pictures, to look at color differences among the juncos.
A conference, a brief vacation, and getting back into non-field-work have conspired to keep me away from the blog for far too long; humblest apologies!
Red-breasted Nuthatch scoffs derisively at your apology!
The conference was the North American Ornithological Conference, which combined the usually-separate annual meetings of many ornithological societies into one gigantic über-meeting with 1500+ attendees, almost all of whom were presenting their research as either a talk or a poster.
Although the last month has brought nests, chicks, and all the excitement they entail, it has also seen increasingly frustrating field work. In the beginning of the field season, we caught between two and five juncos every day; now we’re down to two, one, or none.
Some of them simply don’t respond to our playback at all. Locations that we know have juncos—because we’ve seen them, darnit, we’ve banded them—appear junco-less, our Radio Shack speaker spewing junco calls with no response. Other juncos respond half-heartedly, distractedly. They sing for a minute, then resume foraging. Or, as I watched GAEL do recently, they sing back softly while preening their feathers.
GAEL ignoring us. Photo by M. LaBarbera.
We spend a lot less time handling birds now, and a lot more time muttering, “Jerk juncos.”
Melanic color-dependent antipredator behavior strategies in barn owl nestlings. By Valentin van den Brink, Vassilissa Dolivo, Xavier Falourd, Amélie N. Dreiss, and Alexandre Roulin. Behavioral Ecology, 2011.
I’ve been slacking off on the Featured Papers, since it’s the field season and I’ve been reading
almost nothing less than usual; but this paper is too crazy not to mention.