Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Watching Birds Fledge is a Thrilling Experience
June 07, 2008
Steve Grinley

     We are now in the middle of the nesting season for many birds. The season started in January and February for great horned owls and will continue into August, and maybe even September, for some of the resident birds that have multiple broods. The Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas is in its second year of data collection by volunteers in an attempt to document the distribution of all nesting species in the state. Heading the Essex County effort is Jim Berry of Ipswich, who knows more about nesting birds in our county than anyone I know. Each of us that do the atlasing only need to record evidence of nesting by any species in a given block. However, I found Jim’s detailed account of nesting Carolina wrens last August so fascinating, that I’d like to share it with you today:

     “I’ve been watching birds for over 40 years and monitoring nests for over 30, but have rarely had opportunities to actually see young birds fledge from their nests. Today was such an occasion. Three little Carolina wrens left a nest in our garage within a 2-minute span at 9 this morning.

     “I saw this nest being built the last few days of July. I had seen several fledglings from the previous brood that same week, and concluded that they represented, at that late date, AT LEAST the pair’s second brood of the year. so this new nest (they apparently build a new nest for each clutch) was very likely at least their third.

     “The nest was built 6 feet above the gravel floor on a 2×4 on the back wall of the garage, whose door is never closed, above an empty window frame with no window panes. there are also missing panes on both side windows, so these birds had numerous entrances and exits. The garage is attractively messy, providing almost unlimited potential nest sites. Why it took them (and their ancestors) 18 years to finally nest in a place so inviting is beyond my reckoning, but there it is.

     “An old sled and a crosscut saw hang on the wall in front of the 2×4, their nearest parts high enough to create a front wall for the nest but low enough not to cover the opening, which is visible from well outside the garage. The first egg was laid 7/31 and the other three the next three mornings.

     Incubation commenced 8/3 just after the 4th egg was laid. Incubation takes 12-14 days, per Baicich and Harrison’s nest guide (1997), and sure enough, three young hatched 14 days later on 8/17, the 4th hatching the next morning. Fledging comes 12-14 days later, and the 8/31 hatch date means it took them 14 days, unless one of the three surviving young was the last-born, which I have no way of knowing. So let’s say it took 14 days.

     “We enjoyed seeing the parents take food to the nest, and in this case, since the species so often nests near human activities, these birds did not get unduly alarmed when we took occasional glimpses into the nest to check on the young. The adults were remarkably tolerant, but we didn’t look in very often. This morning I took a seat in the driveway about 0830 and watched with binoculars. This was the first time I could see the young active at the opening, since the cavity is rather deep and until today they didn’t seem to come to the opening unless they were being fed, and then only where they were large. The parents fed them only twice in the next half-hour and kept up their pipping noises constantly, as if trying to encourage the young to leave the nest.

     “At 0900 one of them hopped out onto the runners of the sled, and within 2 minutes the other two followed suit. They stayed there a few minutes, and I was able to take some photos. Then they left the garage by various exits and FLEW into the shrubs beside the garage. One of the miraculous things about baby birds is that they seem to know when it’s time to jump ship, and their immediate ability to fly was ample demonstration of this.

     “Atlas or no atlas, this is one of the supremely rewarding experiences of watching birds. For me, an event like this blows away the finding of a rare bird. It’s like being present for the birth of life itself.”

     Perhaps Jim’s story will encourage you to pay closer attention to, and, thus, appreciate more, the nesting birds in your yard this season.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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