Empty Nest Syndrome

For the last handful of years, my family has had the good fortune to have a pair of Eastern Bluebirds grace the nest box in our tiny suburban backyard. When we set up a box this spring in our new backyard (a suburban oasis I wrote about here), I feared we might not see any action this year because several dead trees on our property provide natural cavities. Typically, we see males start to check out the box for a period of days beginning in February, perching on top, fluttering their wings, and flying in and out carrying nesting material. Once a female is sufficiently impressed, she takes over all of the nest construction and egg incubation, and the male delivers food to her while she is on the nest. I only saw a bird fly into the house once or twice after we set it up, and never with nesting material, so when I peeked in the box in mid-April, I was surprised to discover not only a nest, but five gorgeous blue eggs.

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Eastern Bluebirds generally lay four to six eggs which are incubated for about two weeks.

Every few days, I checked on the nest to monitor the progress of the clutch. Aside from my personal interest in the nest’s success, I had registered to monitor the nest with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Neighborhood Nestwatch program, a citizen science program that provides scientists with hard-to-get data about the survival rate of backyard birds. Nestwatch scientists also visited my home recently to band some of my backyard birds so that I can monitor them and record sightings into their database. Participating in such programs is a great way to spark curiosity and excitement for birds in kids and adults alike, as well as a way to contribute valuable data that scientists can use to guide conservation measures. If you have an accessible, active nest in your yard, I encourage you to register with Nestwatch and record your observations, but do make sure to read the important nest monitoring guidelines first so that you don’t hinder the success of the nesting efforts.

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Scientists from the Smithsonian’s Nestwatch program visited our home in April to catch and band birds for us to monitor. The program provides valuable data for scientists about backyard bird populations.

Bluebird babies take about two weeks to hatch and just another two weeks to fledge. As with all babies, they grow up way too fast—in just a blink of their sleep-deprived parents’ eyes. Every three days or so, I’d watch for the parents to fly off, then take a quick peek in the nest and snap a photo.

Baby bluebirds (1)

Newly hatched–5/3/15

Baby bluebirds (2)

Five or six days old–5/8/14

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Getting bigger everyday–5/11/15

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“Excuse me, could you move over a bit. It’s getting crowded in here!”–5/14/15

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Last photo before they fledged. So shy!–5/16/15

Watching the adults bring food back to the nest was fascinating. Each afternoon after work, I sat on our front steps to enjoy the show from a distance. Mama bluebird brought back much larger prey items than Dad did, and she was also more reluctant to enter the nest box while I was watching than he was. I watched her bring various large flying insects or earthworms back to the nest on several occasions, but I rarely saw her go in. I’d take my eyes off the box for just a moment only to turn back and see her flying off out of sight. One afternoon she even brought a lizard back to the nest!

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Daddy Bluebird was an attentive father. He brought smaller food items to the nest, but seemed to make more frequent visits.

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The female pounded and pounded this hapless lizard on the top of the nest box! I didn’t notice until I cropped my photo that the lizard appears to have already dropped its tail—so much for that defense mechanism. I’m not sure, but I think she gave up and flew off with it rather than feed it to her young. It would have been quite a mouthful!

As the chicks neared two weeks of age, I frequently saw them poke their heads up to look out of the box.  I knew their time to fledge was approaching and hoped it wouldn’t occur the day I would be out of town for a work event. In spite of careful observation in past years, I’ve never seen the babies leave the nest, and I was hoping this year I might get lucky. When I checked the box first thing in the morning after my work trip, I was crushed to discover that the nest was empty. Not only had I missed their departure, they had chosen the first cool, stormy day in almost three weeks to do so. I looked high and low in all the surrounding areas. In my experience, baby birds typically hang around low to the ground for a day or two, or at least up in the trees in the area near the nest, but these baby bluebirds were nowhere to be found. I listened for their begging calls and could detect nothing, and I saw no sign of the parents. I worried that a snake had taken the whole clutch before they even left the nest (which is exactly the reason why birds leave the nest as soon as they are able, often when they haven’t mastered flying yet).  I worried that a predator had gotten them after they left the nest.  I worried that they had gotten wet or gotten lost and succumbed to chill. Feeling disheartened, I headed to work.

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The babies are almost ready to explore the world. Their heads popped up each time their parents visited. 5/15/15

When I returned home that afternoon, I immediately set myself on the front steps with my binoculars. After several minutes I saw the male fly in and grab an insect from the ground and fly off into some distant trees. Several minutes later I saw the female do the same, but I couldn’t make out where they had gone. Surely the babies weren’t that far away? Were the adults just returning to business as normal? The sinking feeling returned. Determined to know more, I watched several more minutes until the male returned to the yard again. This time as he flew off, I changed my vantage point and watched as carefully as I could with my naked eye as he landed at the top of a tremendously tall tree. I could just make out the fluttering of wings and distant begging calls. The babies were safe—and apparently very well equipped to get off the ground!  Phew!  As much as I had hoped they would hang around a little longer, I was relieved and happy to see them safe and sound—the best cure for empty nest syndrome. If I’m lucky, the parents may return to raise one more clutch before the summer is over!

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Empty Nester–Daddy Bluebird poses for the camera.

Note about bluebird conservation:

I’ve commented in the past that I must have walked through the first four decades of my life with blinders on not to have noticed the beauty and diversity of bird life around me, but I think that even had I been paying more attention growing up, I wouldn’t have been likely to see an Eastern Bluebird in my backyard. Eastern Bluebird populations steeply declined in the early part of the 20th century as habitat loss and competition from introduced species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows made nesting holes increasingly difficult for bluebirds to claim. Fortunately today, in spite of the tremendous pressures facing birds, the Eastern Bluebird seems to be doing just fine. The establishment of bluebird trails and other nest box campaigns beginning in the late 1960s helped Eastern Bluebird populations rebound by almost two percent per year between 1966 and 2010.* The success of these efforts is an important reminder that when we work collectively to make small conservation actions, we can effect significant change. So, leave those dead trees standing (60 species in N. America are cavity nesters!), or put up a nest box or two (make sure it is designed to keep out the larger non-native and more aggressive starlings). I’m doing my part!  *www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Bluebird/lifehistory

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Hot Winter Nights

Winter is a great time for viewing wildlife. Even in the cold, gray, wet weather that makes many of us cringe and stay indoors, much of the animal world stays active, and the absence of leaves on the trees makes wildlife easier to spot, especially birds. Some animals aren’t hindered by winter’s chill at all, instead finding it the perfect climate to “turn up the heat.” Believe it or not, winter is the best time of the year to observe several species of raptors that begin courtship and breeding even during the coldest and darkest months.

The Great Horned Owl is one of the earliest breeders in North America, beginning courtship calls as early as October and choosing a mate by December. The male attracts the female’s attention by puffing up his white throat and hooting while bowing to her. If the female is sufficiently impressed, she joins in the bowing and hooting, and the birds may remain mates for their entire lives. Breeding typically occurs in January or February with females laying one to four eggs that hatch in about seven weeks. Now is the best time of year to get out and look for these birds, particularly while the bare tree branches make it easier to spot their nests, which are often taken over from hawks, crows, or squirrels. In fact, here in Georgia these owls have already been spotted on their nests, used only when the females are brooding eggs and tending to their young. Be sure to look for the two ear tufts popping out from the top.

Great horned owl

photo: Jim Wilson

Great Horned Owls are not the only owls getting “busy” this season. Barred Owls also begin reuniting with their mates and refurbishing or scouting for nest sites in the cold months of winter. I’ve been hearing the local pair of Barred Owls hooting it up in my neighborhood for the past month, and I have been fortunate to see them roosting together in our neighborhood park the past two winters. I will be keeping my eyes peeled again this season! At AWARE wildlife center where I volunteer, our pair of nonreleasable Barred Owls, Gazer and Tappy, have become increasingly vocal.  As is typical in the wild, Tappy offers food to Gazer, and they are frequently seen preening each other. Gazer must be impressed with Tappy’s attention–she laid her very first egg in late fall (though did not incubate it)!

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My local Barred Owls roosting together last February.

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AWARE’s educational owls Gazer and Tappy are frequently seen preening each other.

Bald eagles are also early breeders, typically building their nests and laying eggs by mid-February, even earlier in southern states. (During a recent trip to Florida, I saw two bald eagles on their nests on New Year’s Eve!) Eagle’s nests, usually made of sticks and other plant material and found in big trees near large bodies of water, are the largest nests of any bird in North America. These enormous structures can measure over nine feet in diameter and twenty feet in height and can weigh more than two tons! A pair of eagles will typically use the same nest for many successive years. Eagles have a spectacular courtship ritual involving vocalizations and acrobatic flights that sometimes include a spiraling freefall from great heights with interlocked talons. What a thrill it would be to see this amorous display!

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Bald Eagle on a nest in Cedar Key, Florida — 12/31/13

Red-tailed hawks are also getting ready to breed at this time of year by building or refurbishing their nests of twigs, foliage, and other plant matter. Eggs are typically laid in March or April, depending on latitude. Like eagles, Red-tailed Hawks have dramatic aerial courtship displays. The male and female soar in circles calling with their unmistakable shrill, raspy cries. The male dives steeply then rises again, repeating this display several times. The display sometimes culminates with the pair clasping talons and plummeting in a spiral toward the ground before pulling away. Because Red-tailed Hawks are possibly the most common hawks in North America and are well-adapted to living in proximity to humans, careful observers are sure to be rewarded with sightings of these beautiful birds.

Witnessing these powerful birds is a reminder of what an incredibly diverse and magical planet we share. For those inclined to stay indoors in the winter months, several websites with live “nest cams” offer viewers the unique opportunity to watch these birds building nests, brooding eggs, and raising young in real time (see below for links), but how much more fascinating it is to witness it in person! So, before the leaves obscure the treetops, bundle up, grab a pair of binoculars, and keep your ears open and eyes toward the skies!

Recommended Nest Cams:

Watch Georgia’s beloved Berry College Eagles raise their young for the third year in a row. Mom is already incubating two eggs! Or check out the Atlanta Falcons (Peregrine, that is!).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a trove of all sorts of information about birds and has nestcams for several species of birds. Tune in to this year’s livestream cameras here.

My Friend, Edgar Allan Crow

I have a thing for crows. Whenever I hear their calls, I can’t help but smile to myself and wonder what they are saying. Most people take them for granted, perhaps because they’re so common, yet few people truly understand how remarkable they really are. Highly intelligent and adaptable, crows aren’t appreciated enough. Until I met one very special crow, I, too, never gave them much thought. When she passed away this summer, I was genuinely heartbroken, and I miss her still. She was a good friend.

You may find it odd that her name was Edgar Allan (Crow). When she came in to the wildlife center where I volunteer (AWARE) for rehabilitation in 2010, we had no way of knowing her gender without performing costly blood work, so we made the best guess based on her weight. (Males tend to outweigh females, but they otherwise look the same.) Later, dedicated volunteers donated the funds for the lab work for each of our educational birds, but Edgar’s name had already stuck. Truly, for a singular bird, she deserved a singular name. I was privileged to develop a relationship with her over the course of three years.

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Edgar was missing a lot of feathers when she came to AWARE.

Malnourished and missing many of her feathers, Edgar was a pitiful sight when she arrived at AWARE. The feathers she still had were brittle and broken, some of them raw where they had broken off. Although the cause of Edgar’s condition was uncertain, we suspected it was a result of a “fast-food diet.” More than likely, Edgar was raised in an urban area, brought up on discarded human foods like French fries and hamburgers rather than a natural crow diet. Unfortunately, as a result of her poor nutrition as a youngster, her feathers hadn’t grown properly, and she wasn’t able to fly. With care and good nutrition, many of Edgar’s feathers grew in long and sleek over time, but unfortunately, never fully enough to set her aloft.

What she lacked in grace and appearance, Edgar made up for with her spunky personality. She was a very vocal bird, having several different calls with different meanings. (Crows can produce at least 25 different sounds and even mimic the sounds of humans and other animals.) Whenever I arrived at the center or she wanted my attention, she would call to me with exuberant caw-caw-cawing. When she was upset or frightened (brooms totally freaked her out), she would elicit a gruffer, earsplitting CAW-CAW-CAW, but she cooed softly when you stroked her sweet spots. When she was being playful, she giggled. No joke – giggled! Once or twice, volunteers even swear they heard her say a word or two.

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Edgar was a spunky crow!

Edgar could be mischievous and silly, and she often made people laugh. She loved to play “catch-me-if-you-can,” peck at people’s shoes, and walk around in her food getting her feet dirty. (Fortunately, she also liked to take baths frequently). She loved to play with paper – crumpling it, pecking at it, wetting it, and stuffing it in cracks and crevices. She liked to play with my scarves in the winter, too, so I made her a few of her own to play with. I would tease her by trying to put one on her. A few times, she let me! In the few months before she died, Edgar and I had perfected a really cute trick. I’d tell her to “kiss my beak,” and she would rub her beak against my nose. Someone once commented that I was brave to put my face so close to a crow’s strong, pointy beak, but Edgar and I had established mutual trust.

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Edgar loved her baths!

Because of Edgar, crows fascinate me. In my curiosity to know more, I’ve done a lot of reading about them. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that crows are among the smartest of all animals, but I’ve learned some amazing facts that you may find surprising:

  • Crows form lasting, close-knit family ties. In fact, it is not uncommon for three generations of crows to spend time together. Crows care for young, sick, and injured family members and protect them from predators. They even form “mobs” to drive predators away. Crows form monogamous breeding pairs and are known to pay extended visits to siblings or extended family living elsewhere. Young crows may spend several years with their parents, helping to raise subsequent broods, and juveniles often set up their own breeding territories adjacent to their parents’.
  • Crows are one of the few species of animals that makes and uses tools, and they are excellent problem solvers. They have been seen dropping acorns onto roads to be cracked by passing cars and dropping shellfish onto rocks to break them open. They have also been observed breaking off twigs of a certain shape to use as a hook for snagging insects in tree cavities. They even store these “tools” in safe places to use again and again. In addition, crows have also been known to drop pine cones on people getting too close to their nest. Sometimes, crows pull up unattended fishing lines and eat the bait or fish they find, which requires both problem solving ability and dexterity. They have also been known to tweak the tail of another animal to distract it while a fellow bird steals the animal’s food.
  • Crows are playful and curious. They drop and catch sticks in flight and play games like tug-of-war. They swing on tree branches and slide on snowdrifts. Sometimes, they’ll give a playful nip to the tail of a dog or other animal, then fly out of reach.
  • Crows benefit the environment. They eat insects and small animals that harm crops and gardens, as well as food littered by humans. They also eat carrion, helping sanitize the environment. Crow droppings spread seeds and fertilize soil.

If you still aren’t convinced that crows are amazing, or if you want to learn more about these incredible birds, check out the extraordinary story of Moses, a crow who “adopted” a kitten. You’ve got to see it to believe it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JiJzqXxgxo! In addition, the following fascinating study shows that crows can learn not only to recognize individual human faces and identify them as friend or foe, but will transmit this information to their crow mates: http://news.sciencemag.org/2010/02/caveman-or-dick-cheney-crows-know-difference! Ironically, as Cornell Lab of Ornithology ecologist and crow expert Kevin McGowan notes, whereas “crows can recognize people as individuals, we still see crows as just crows.”

Edgar Allan Crow gave me a gift by showing me how remarkable crows really are. Once you know more about them, it’s hard to think of them as “just crows” and not appreciate their intelligence, loyalty, and moxie. Pay attention to your crow neighbors who raise their families next to our own — you never know how they’ll surprise you!