Thursday, August 8, 2013

June 2013: Feed Me! Baby Bird Blues.... unless you're a Goose

There is no avoiding birds in June. And one doesn’t have to be in the woods to see them. We best saw the plight of baby birds as we ate dinner on the glassed-in porch of our island home which being in a resort community is rather crowded in June, almost like a crowded suburb (of Rochester, wags say up here.)

Three baby phoebes perched side by side on a branch just outside our window.

While the little ones seemed to exhaust themselves being cute, the parents hustled bugs into their mouths: first the one on the right

Then the baby on the left

As the mother dining inside our house noted, the one in the middle had not been fed. But the two mouths that had been stuffed soon tucked back into back fluff and finally there was no mouth open save for the middle baby’s and it got fed.

It all seemed orderly and our proximity caused no problem. Back in the woods or near the woods, it is difficult not to disturb the feeding of the young even when you are relatively far away. Of course you don’t disturb the baby birds. How do they know how threatening you can be? It’s the parents that can’t help but be alarmed.

Over the years some thrashers have thrived in the woods just up from some large hay fields, not quite on our property. This year we noticed them around our lower garden quite convenient for viewing except that whenever we saw them in the open they flew quickly deep into a tree.

On June 21 we heard three birds in the trees where we had been seeing the thrashers.

Two birds were making stressful chirps and there was also the sweetest little “urrrrr” sound I’ve ever heard. Then something fluttered across the road and I heard that “urrrr” sound in the underbrush

I focused the camcorder on a bird (not in the photo above) then it flew up and out of the bushes, back into the trees in the direction of the continuing stressful chirps. I finally saw one of those stressed birds, an adult thrasher, and some bugs in its beak, obviously food for the urrring baby.

The story of the short video clip below is that I was causing all the stress and keeping that baby thrasher from being fed. The adults were trying to distract my attention from the baby.

I could listen to that urrrring for ever, but I got the message and moved on.

Thanks to that sweet noise over the next few days I was able to get a sense of how prone the baby thrasher was not to fly off too far. I also got the impression that there was only one baby, and I got the impression that the only bird I could see was that baby.

However, birds grow fast, and while I am sure experts can see a difference with the adults in coloration and marking, I rely on attitude. Baby birds look a bit clueless, which in the case of the one I saw meant looking this way and that.

I assume its parents were loath to feed it as it perched in the open so close to me. I kept looking for the parents in the trees around the perched fledgling but all I saw was a verio, very briefly.

I like this confusion in the foliage, and I have no idea if birds have a sense of being in the same arbor together. They must be too stressed and focus on caring for themselves and their young, but I keep seeing possible sparks of curiosity.

Bigger birds throw some relief on the problem. While I have often seen mother grouse put on the wounded bird act to attract my attention while her many little ones scatter, this June I have not been hiking as much in grouse country. When I disturbed grouse in the woods south of the Lost Swamp Pond on June 20, I saw the parent fly away smartly and what appeared to be one remaining fledgling flutter up on the low branch of a pine tree, looking quite confused.

It eventually fluttered off in the direction of the parent, but I had a hunch this bird was now on its own.

So among birds there is an acute sense of abandonment and a sense that abandoning offspring becomes the only sensible thing to do.

But then there are the geese. Despite the disrespect humans show for them, I can imagine no more caring society than that fashioned by the geese. True, their fights over nesting spots can get out of hand, but once the eggs are laid, things begin to settle down as far as geese attacking geese.

Where I live minks and coyotes feast on just hatched goslings. If it is cold at hatching time, usually early May, for a few days the goose mother covers them with her wings and body.

In May 2005 I saw a coyote on the largest lodge in the Lost Swamp Pond

No geese were around that day, but seeing the coyote where geese had nested explained what I saw the week before. I saw a goose pecking through fluff on the beaver lodge 30 yards behind the dam where I had seen a goose nesting for weeks.

There were 8 geese in the water swimming around the lodge, not quietly but not as yet, I thought, alarmed at my coming on the scene. I assumed the goose on the nest was feeding babies but when I looked through my spyglass all I saw was fluff. Then that goose jumped into the water and the other geese seemed to shout encouragement. Another goose hopped up on the lodge, no doubt the gander who had stood guard the whole time the mother goose was on the eggs. He pecked through the fluff, found nothing to protect, joined the other geese in the pond and they moved away from the destroyed nest together. Continuing along the shore, I saw two piles of down.

Given the support from other geese that those parents got, you can imagine the help in store for parents who had goslings to tend.

Not that the parents need help. They are both full time parents, even when only one gosling survives.

One might argue that it is instinct gone mad, the family in a line, mother first, father last. Why such a fuss with only one little gosling? But I like it. I have seen a goose family vary that line-up and face the world side-by-side.


I saw that family of three on May 26, 2013, and the family of six on May 16, 2008.

Families aren’t really the story in June. The families begin to merge in June. I saw that on Audubon Pond on June 23

The family six shared the pond with the younger family of five and as you can see in the video, a couple more families bring up the rear.

Not pictured are three more adults. As families congregate on the river, the distinction between families slowly ends. In late July one has to study a flock harder to distinguish the young from their parents. All that evolves peacefully. The only ruckus occurs when the adults try to get the goslings flapping in the water and slowly break the news to them that they have to fly. Winter is coming, and hunters well before that.

However, we can't blame the smaller birds for the more stressful first summer of their fledglings. Geese put all their eggs in that one nest. The smaller birds can have a couple clutches making upbringing a bit hectic. That's what it takes for the species to survive.

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