Friday, July 17, 2009

Babes in the Woods, Part 3 – Sibling Rivalry

This morning my route took me past one of my favorite birding spots, a pleasant cemetery on the banks of the large river that runs through my town. (OK, it wasn’t on my route. I went there after I got fuel for the car. But I just happened to have my binoculars in the car.) I wasn’t in search of anything in particular, just curious to see what was going on there, ornithologically speaking. During the spring and early summer, I had stopped there two or three times each week and had become familiar with the “regulars” on and around the river, and now, in mid-July, I was wondering what birds were still about and what young ones I might see.

Today, I stopped in a shady spot in the upper level, turned off the car, and sat to listen. Soon the birds got used to the presence of the car (a useful blind) and started moving all around me. Nothing unusual was in the area, though an appearance by a beautiful Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher was a special treat, as I haven’t seen one for quite some time. I had a nice long look as it fluttered about catching tiny insects.

A family of phoebes put on the biggest show – two adults and three or four youngsters –flitting about between ground, headstones, and overhanging branches. The youngsters called almost constantly (Feed me! Feed me!). Young birds grow so quickly that they eat as much as the parents can stuff into those gaping beaks. (Feed me! Feed me!) Whenever an adult caught an insect, the young ones would crowd around, jostling for the best position to receive the squashy or crunchy treat (Feed me! Feed me!). The young ones, though as large as their parents, had duller coloring and softer, still-downy, plumage. It was amazing to see how many insects these two birds fed to their young in just 10 minutes. If it were not for birds and other insectivores, we’d be overrun by bugs.

We see the same sibling rivalry at our backyard feeders, where fledglings from many species visit daily. The woodpeckers in particular are very pugilistic, posturing and calling loudly in their efforts to control access to the suet feeders.

Our feeders are busier now than they were in the winter. At the suet feeders, 3 or 4 families of downy woodpeckers, 2 families of hairy woodpeckers, and 2 families of red-bellied woodpeckers visit daily.

Other species that have brought their young to the suet include Grey Catbirds, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Black-Capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Blue Jays, American Crows (yes, crows!), Purple Grackles, Northern Cardinals, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, and others.

It’s fascinating to watch the young birds figure out what to eat and how to eat it. Once the fledglings are old enough to feed themselves, their parents bring them to the food, feed them a bit, demonstrate how to open a seed or climb onto the suet cage, then fly off and leave the youngsters to learn as they go.

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