Babies

All that singing for mates and territory, the frenetic nest building and then the costly egg laying and feeding of “babies” has led most of us to have younger birds in our yards.  If we notice now the sounds are much quieter— birds are NOT calling for potential mates or defending nest sites—they are quietly avoiding predators and filling up their fat stores for migration or surviving the winter. Many birds also need to eat a lot to build a new set of adult feathers – losing the old feathers for new ones is called “the molt” and is often most obvious to use as the young birds mature into the adult plumage.

In many birding magazines or web sites the nuanced discussion is long and sometimes contradictory about when to call a particular bird species a nestling, a fledgling, a chick or duckling or some specific word such as cygnet for swans, a juvenile, an immature or a subadult.  While we can leave these to ornithologists to debate it is a source of great pleasure as well as knowledge to see the variety in our own environments.

Generally when birds hatch they are relatively free of feathers or are covered with very fine “downy” feathers. As they grow these change into rather “fluffy” juvenile feathers. The young birds grow really quickly to achieve adult size in the space of a few weeks and can generally fly within a couple weeks of hatching. Therefore to see “babies” one looks not for size but for variations in feather patterns, color and also in bird behavior.

Last week I was sitting in my yard with a friend and we noticed two Downy Woodpeckers at the suet feeder. One was sitting on top of the feeder rather loudly verbalizing and flapping its feathers. The other obligingly got some suet and delivered a nice packet to the “chick” on the top of the feeder. Many young birds even though as large as the parent, able to fly and certainly able physically to peck at the suet still ask to be “fed” and will “beg”. A typical begging posture is one where the younger birds call in a high pitched tone and flap their feathers but don’t fly off. I have seen almost all species exhibit this behavior from the four Black Capped Chickadees who nested in our birdhouse on our deck to the Red Breasted Nuthatches and the American Robins.

Another clue to youth is that the feathers look “fluffier” and less colorful. Many birds do not develop the full adult coloration till many molts later. The most obvious to many American is the Bald Eagle, which can take 3-5 years to develop the white head that is particular to adult birds. Bald Eagles who are four years old are typically called sub-adults, which is the bird term for teenagers.

So notice what is in your yard—which Robins have spotted breasts indicating youth. Which Chickadees have larger beaks—the beak shape has not solidified to the adult shape yet. Which Woodpeckers have orange on the backs of heads rather than bright red—indicating a newly molted juvenile. These physical characteristics along with behavior can be clues to the newly hatched. Hopefully they enhance your enjoyment of the diversity in our own yards..

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