Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Many bird species had a tough June. The frequent and heavy rains destroyed some nests and in certain cases nestlings. Some bird species had a chance to nest again. For others, biology made that impossible.
Hard hit were species nesting in wetlands or on marsh shoreline where rising water levels dislodged or covered nests. Birds nesting on or near the ground in flooded areas also lost nests, eggs, or nestlings. Wind blew nests and contents to the ground.
If loss occurred before the eggs hatched there was a chance the birds would nest again. If, however, chicks were lost, then the breeding season for the parents ended. Once eggs hatch, the reproductive system of the female bird shuts down.
Going into the middle of June, birds simply might not have had time to start over and successfully fledge birds that would be mature enough to migrate or survive winter.
Mark Martell, director of bird conservation for Audubon Minnesota said blackbirds, rails, grebes, and terns in particular were at risk from rising water levels. He pointed out that songbirds, too, faced problems if wet weather made insects hard to find.
Birds feeding hatchlings rely heavily on insects because of their fat and protein content. Missing a couple of days of food because of heavy rains could mean chicks starve.
“This is the kind of situation,” Martell said, “where the most fit chicks survive and the weak die.”
If we’re living in weather’s new normal, and it's beginning to look that way, these losses will continue. Birds will nest as they have for millions of years, awareness of extended extreme wind and rain a distant evolution away.
An article in the June 24 edition of The New York Times discussed content of a report about our economy in a world of “unchecked global warming.” The author, Justin Gillis, wrote that in 100 years residents of the Midwest could expect “20 days each year in which heat and humidity make it functionally impossible for humans to be outdoors.”
What about birds and other animals?
What happens to birds when it is too hot and humid outdoors for humans? Is there impact on the plants and insects that provide food for birds? Do birds simply become stressed, as do we, and die?
Certainly, the first concern is for human life, climate impact on where and how we live. And the next century is a long time from now. But whatever conditions we create for ourselves, by action or neglect, we create for animals as well.
This Lark Bunting was photographed in South Dakota on a July day when the temperature was pushing 100 degrees. The bird was exposing as much skin as possible and panting in an effort to cool itself.
One of my grandsons is becoming surrogate father to one or more House Sparrows. This is happening Thursday afternoon. The first of three eggs he has in his room under a heat lamp is so so slowly being pried open by a very tiny, very pink bird. In one other egg the occupant has poked a hole as it begins to hatch.
I would have bet a lot of money that this would not happen.
Four days ago, Cole, who is 12, and I were checking nest boxes on my bluebird trail. House Sparrows, non-native birds that out-compete bluebirds and Tree Swallows for nesting space, are not favorites of mine. When I find a nest in one of my boxes, perhaps once a season in 40 boxes, I pull the nest out, eggs and the messy nest falling to the ground, where I leave them.
Cole asked if he could have the eggs. “Sure, they’re yours.” It’s not often that anyone gets close looks at songbird eggs. Cole is an enthusiastic birder with a love of anything alive (or dead) and outdoors. So, he took the eggs.
“Can I have the nest?” he asked. My thoughts went to bird lice before I said yes. Why not? I had no idea that he would reconstruct the nest in a box in his bedroom, find a heat lamp, and incubate the eggs.
He called that night to tell me he had candled one of the eggs — not easy with a cream-colored egg blotched with brown — but, he said he saw the outline of a chick. He sounded excited.
These are bird lessons hard to find, and I was happy for him. He was going to be disappointed when the eggs didn’t hatch, but that’s a lesson, too.
Just after one o’clock today, Thursday afternoon, Cole’s sister Sophie called and said, “Grandpa, you have to come over and see Cole’s baby birds.”
And so I found three kids, ages 12, 8 and 6 huddling over this jury-rigged nursery, watching an incredibly small and delicate sparrow push against the shell, rest, push again, rest, that routine to continue for hours, I’m sure. You can’t buy this. I'm offering no help or direction, but will if he asks. Right now, Cole is using the Internet for answers. He is ready with meal worms as food. He has not given thought to fecal sacs, but he will.
I’ll report as this progresses. Whatever happens this will be unforgettable for these kids. And for me.
By the way, in case you wonder, Cole’s possession of eggs, nest, and now live birds is legal because House Sparrows, as non-native invasive species, are not protected. Unless you get too close to Cole’s babies.
Here is a photo of the chick making its initial appearance in the world. What you see in the opening is a wing. The eggs are about three-quarters of an inch in length. The second photo shows the bird after emerging from the egg, a process that tpok about two hours. It ate bits of meal worm an hour after that. In the second photo, the bird's head is pointed down, the end of its beak overlapping the egg on the left.
The female Canada Goose nesting on our pond hatched six goslings early Tuesday morning. They spent the day under her wings, moving to the water sometime this (Wednesday) morning. Mid-day Tuesday the Hooded Merganser nesting in one of our duck boxes appeared with four chicks. As soon as the geese left the platform, she and the chicks moved in. They can be seen climbing aboard in the lower left corner of the platform.
These are photos of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks mating. I've been watching this pair for about two weeks, ever since I discovered their nesting site. A few days ago I was fortunate enough to be on site and in the right place when their brief mating encounter took place. Both birds are using their wings for balance. The male is on top. The female has raised her tail and pulled it to the left. (Her tail is light, showing a reddish tint). In the first photo the male has his tail (dark rectangle) in its usual position as he mounts the female. To transfer sperm, the male also twists his tail to the left ( second photo) to facilitate contact of his cloaca with the female's cloaca. This particular encounter lasted about five seconds. Development of the egg in the female takes about 24 hours. The female will lay one egg per day until she has a complete clutch of one to five eggs. Incubation takes from 28 to 35 days. If the egg has markings, those are deposited on the shell during its passage through the uterus. Rapid movement through the uterus produces streaks of color, slower movement spots. Red-tailed Hawk eggs are white or buffy, marked with buff, brown, or purple.
A Great Horned Owl nest holding the hen and two chicks can easily be seen at Silverwood Park in St. Anthony. (Park personnel have established a limit to approach to prevent disturbing the birds.) The hen and her chicks are nesting in the hollow of a broken branch in a large tree very close to a paved walking path, about 30 feet up. Visitors should have no problem locating the birds. Just look for the photographers, ever-present at this unusual viewing opportunity. The young owls appear to be about six weeks old. The male owl often can be seen perched, sound asleep, high in a nearby tree. That bird, as you can see from the photo below (not a very cooperative bird) is much lighter than its mate. Coloration of this species is highly variable. This female has typical adult coloration. The male tends more toward the lighter birds found most often far north. Great Horned Owls can be so light as to resemble Snowy Owls. This one is far from that, but interesting nonetheless. The owls should be visible for several more weeks. Once the young birds leave the nest they often remain in its vicinity. To find them, drive to the park’s most distant parking lot. There is a paved walkway leading between two park buildings. Follow that pathway approximately 200 yards. You might also find interesting the courtship behavior of at least seven Eastern Chipmunks in a tangle of brush and fallen logs immediately to the right of the walkway from the best owl-viewing spot. Friday, they were chasing each other incessantly. The chipmunks are very obvious right under the eye of the female owl. The male owl, the family’s provider, sleeps during the day, hunting at night. Perhaps that explains the mammals’ apparent daytime nonchalance.
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