The Bird Days of Summer

This has been one weird year, hasn't it? With a lot of activities curtailed due to the pandemic, the days seem to inch along at a snail's pace, each one seemingly longer than the day before. I barely remember what occupied my time during the last eight months – except for an unexpected move in July. Note to self: never move during a pandemic. In fact, never move again.

Yet, suddenly, it's August and the sultry Dog Days of Summer have set in. According to Wikipedia, the term refers to the period following the rising of the star system Sirius, which astrology connects with heat, drought, sudden thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dogs and bad luck. That's a perfect – albeit bleak – description of a pandemic summer in Arizona, but I'm guessing that everyone, no matter where you're spending your summer, could use a little break from the boredom of this year. So let's call it the Bird Days of Summer instead because what's better than looking at and talking about birds? Looking at and talking about baby birds, of course.

That said, I will caution you that not all the baby birds I captured images of this spring and early summer were sweet and cuddly; there are some species that produce, well, awkward-looking young.

Take for instance the Great-tailed Grackle. While some may argue that the birds are noisy pests and not very attractive, I have always thought them to be handsome – especially the males with their iridescent feathers and intimidating yellow eyes.

Perhaps it's only fitting, then, that these big, brash birds produce big, brash offspring. They don't resemble their parents much at all, with bills that seem too large for heads adorned with tufts of wispy feathers like an ornate hat. This fledgling (recently out of the nest) does not have all his adult plumage yet and is still being watched over and fed by his parents. In fact, this baby's father kept a very close (yellow) eye on me while I photographed his young one and verbally warned me not to get any closer. The baby just stared at me with halfhearted interest.

Although Say's Phoebe babies do resemble adults and are as large as their parents within just a few weeks, they still have the appearance of a grumpy baby just awakened from a nap. The telltale yellow gape flange around the bill is a sign of a recently fledged bird. The bright color is used to attract attention when the parents bring food and even after leaving the nest, that color takes some time to fade.

The American Robin is a common sight on lawns across North America, where you often see them tugging earthworms out of the ground. Most songbirds, hummingbirds and woodpeckers are known as altricial, which means they are born naked and blind, and that makes them vulnerable and totally dependent on their parents. Robins develop quickly, however, and will be ready to leave the nest in two to three weeks, but remain in family groups for several weeks as they learn foraging and flying skills. As the name suggests, this hatchling is just days old.

In contrast to altricial birds (born naked and blind), Pied-billed Grebes (pictured in the heading), are known as precocial birds, which means they hatch with their eyes open and are covered with downy feathers that are soon replaced by adult-type feathers. Grebes can swim shortly after hatching and often ride on their parent's backs.

Hooded Orioles visit my community each spring, raising young from nests high in palms trees before continuing on to their winter homes in southern Mexico and further south. I caught this one in another one of those grumpy poses before it joined its mother on a nearby branch.

Compare those young birds to these Anna's Hummingbird nestlings, who, at only a week or two old, look like tiny replicants of their parents.

This female Costa's Hummingbird fledgling, along with her brother, were still being fed by their mother as I watched. She was less than 2" from head to tail.

Also in the avian "cuteness" column would be Gambel's Quail chickslittle fluff balls on legs with huge feet. A quail brood is usually quite large – I've seen as many as 10 or more fuzzy chicks scurrying along after their parents. My sense, though, is that quail parents aren't terribly smart as I once witnessed a pair run across the street with their brood desperately trying to keep up. The parents hopped up onto the curb and raced on, without so much as a backward glance at their little ones. The babies failed to scale the curb and were running up and down the gutter frantically searching for another way up. Maybe that's why they lay so many eggs.

Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are one of the smallest songbirds of North America, weighing about as much as a nickel, so you can imagine the size of this fledgling. Both parents, who often remain together all year, share the responsibility of feeding the nestlings and young are reported to leave the nest about 10-15 days after hatching.

Another tiny but tough bird is the Verdin, which is probably the most common songbird in my neighborhood. A pair will build several nests a year, laying 3-6 eggs each time, so by summer there are a lot of Verdins around. Both parents feed the nestlings, who will leave the nest about 21 days after hatching, but the babies will continue to return to the nest to sleep at night.

I love to watch avian parents feeding young and teaching them the art of survival. It can be quite a challenge as they navigate the leaves and branches of tall trees, especially when the fledglings are still learning to balance and fly. This Lesser Goldfinch is struggling to stay perched as it stretches toward mom for a snack.

This House Finch fledgling is also flapping her wings as dad attempts to feed her. That got me to thinking: are the flapping wings to get the attention of their parents or to help with balance? What happens if they fall?

I discovered a study, conducted in 2014 by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, that showed birds have an innate ability to maneuver in midair, a talent that could have helped their ancestors learn to fly rather than fall from a perch. The researchers observed that even ungainly, day-old baby birds successfully used their flapping wings to right themselves when they fell from a nest, a skill that improves with age until they become coordinated and graceful flyers. Oh, and yes. The flapping also signals to their parents that they're hungry and want to be fed – NOW.

A mother hummingbird feeds her babies about every 20 minutes. The babies, who are blind at first, will lift their heads and open their mouths when they feel the wind from her wings. She inserts her beak into their mouths, dropping regurgitated insects and nectar inside with a sewing machine motion. How she keeps from stabbing them through the back of the head is a mystery to me. This is a Costa's Hummingbird female and her fledgling. From this angle, the baby looks much larger than its parent!

I can't end this blog without a picture of the Great Horned Owl that was born near my house this year. I am totally swept away every time I see one of these magnificent creatures. This owlet with his yellow-eyed stare looks so soft and cuddly – until you notice those powerful claws and realize the fierce hunter he will become.

Owlets remain in the nest for about six weeks, then climb out onto nearby branches to strengthen their wings and legs, a process called "branching." They may perch in unusual areas or even rest directly on the ground, which often leads humans to try to "rescue" them. But owl parents are very protective of their young and have been known to attack animals and humans that they perceive as a threat. The owlets begin taking short flights at seven weeks, and can fly well at 9-10 weeks.

As the summer drags on through insufferable heat and birds are less active except early in the morning, I'm happy to have had the time this year to seek out and observe the baby birds within my neighborhood. What a thrill to find a nest, watch it fill with hatchlings and then follow the family as the young leave the safety of their nests and learn vital life lessons. This simple observation of life outside the realm of human worries – this connection to nature – brings joy amid chaos, lifts one above the fray of endless bad news cycles and makes one realize that there are still plenty of things to be hopeful about. If you're just discovering that about're welcome!

6 thoughts on “The Bird Days of Summer”

  1. What a wonderful essay. Yes, one is hopeful after reading your prose and seeing your excellent photos. Thanks.

  2. Lyndie, I am always in awe of the beauty you capture through your photography. I was thinking
    that the Say’s Phoebe looks like it is wearing a mask!

  3. Lindie,
    I just got to read your post, and as always, the pictures are terrific, and the writing is so good. I hope it begins to cool off there soon.

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