Monday, July 22, 2013

Summer’s Bumper Baby Bird Crop

Guest post by Bob Bowers

If I were to pick one month to get out of Arizona, it would be June. The lower desert elevations of Yuma and Phoenix are furnace hot, and even Tucson, at 2,000 feet, and SaddleBrooke, at 3,400 feet, are often triple-digit hot. The promise of cooling July monsoons offer little solace to those of us who watch the snowbirds leave town in May. On the other hand, one punishingly hot month is a small price to pay for the other eleven. Besides, 30 days of (dry) heat seems inconsequential compared with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes. June’s lining is silver, as well: the crowds are gone, traffic is light, swimming pools, restaurants and theaters are empty. For birders, there is another bonus: bird babies appear in abundance.

Precocial Gambel's Quail with dad

Even non-birders get excited about baby quail, who start showing up in May and continue hatching throughout the summer. Gambel’s Quail babies are more obvious than most of our other birds because, unlike most of our other birds, they are precocial. Most birds, like humans, are altricial at birth: naked and helpless. Naked and helpless birds are kept out of sight and well-protected, so we rarely see them until they fledge. Quail babies, on the other hand, come out of their eggs feathered, clear-eyed and ready to roll. And a good thing, too, since roadrunners tolerate lizard lunches but salivate over baby quail. This explains why that string of a dozen quail babies, motoring after their parents like a column of wind-up toys on Tuesday, shrinks to ten on Wednesday and a handful by the weekend. Fortunately, some survive and by the end of June we usually find a wide range of quail ‘babies’, from tiny newborns to teenagers.

Bill-fed baby Black-headed Grosbeak

Altricial birds, keeping their young under lock and key, don’t have to lay as many eggs to get sufficient survivors. If you’re lucky, you’ll discover an altricial bird nest with young, cheeping incessantly as a mom or dad stuffs bugs and other delicacies into their gaping mouths. If you’re thoughtful, you’ll also watch from a distance, taking care not to unsettle this fragile launching of life. Eventually, after a couple of weeks or so, these helpless birds have eaten enough bugs, grown enough feathers and gained enough strength to test their wings and venture out where we can enjoy their comic struggles to mature. Even though some don’t look much like their parents, they’re still easy to recognize as juveniles. Look for fluff balls on unsteady legs, quivering, shaking and cheeping, while a parent faithfully brings them food, shows them where to eat and probably wonders when the heck they’ll fend for themselves. You can find many examples of this behavior in your yard, with House Sparrows and finches, Curve-billed Thrashers, Cactus Wrens, Northern Cardinals, Verdins and Black-throated Sparrows. Hummingbirds are more quickly independent, perhaps because their deadbeat dads parted ways at conception. By the time hummers leave the nest, mom is no doubt exhausted and ready to call it quits. Besides, it’s hard to feed a youngster doing aerial acrobatics at 90 miles per hour.

Black-throated Sparrow shows youngster the ropes

Young birds can be recognized in other ways, as well. Not yet as wary as adults, newly-fledged birds will approach you more closely and are less quickly frightened away. They are often clumsy, bumping into obstacles and making flawed landings. They look shaggy, have bad hairdos and sometimes immature coloring. Young male Vermilion Flycatchers are mottled and young cardinals have black bills instead of red-orange. Invariably, they make you laugh. That alone will make you forget the heat.

Dazed and confused, young Cactus Wren

All photos by Bob Bowers. This article is scheduled to be published in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper in August, 2013.

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