the distraction lure

Some bird mothers go to great lengths to distract predators away from their nest and/or fledgling chicks.  They feign injury, flapping like they are wounded but can’t fly, chirping loudly to attract attention to themselves and away from their chicks.  I’ve seen Kildeer do this many times, as they lead me on a merry chase away from their nest.  For example…

But I’ve never heard of small songbirds using this strategy, until I saw it in action today when a female Indigo Bunting led me all over the backyard as I tried to find her nest and her chirping chicks.

indigo bunting-female feigning injury

Here I am, look at me, I’m helpless with my broken wings.”

Wings fluttering, hopping sort of helplessly through the grass, chirping continuously, and flying weakly from spot to spot, this female Indigo Bunting put on quite a show.

Moving around in the underbrush of the wildflower garden, I discovered two of her chicks, also chirping loudly, but hidden from view until one of them tried to cross a patch of grass.

indigo bunting-fledgling

Bunting chicks may fledge (leave the nest) after only 8 days, and can hardly fly more than 10 feet, so they tend to stay hidden in low, dense vegetation.

indigo bunting fledgling-

Not a very adept flyer yet…

indigo bunting-fledgling

The chick is not even fully feathered yet, has short stubby wing feathers, and no tail. It would be easy prey for a wandering cat…

Meanwhile, its mother is still chirping away at me, from all over the garden.

indigo bunting-female

first here…

indigo bunting-female

then here… (see that faint tinge of blue on her shoulder?)

indigo bunting-female

and finally right out in front of me.  Older females may be much bluer than this, with streaky blue patches on their shoulders, back, and tail.  But their overall drab plumage helps camouflage them while they care for the chicks.

indigo-bunting-male

A brightly colored male Indigo Bunting would attract way too much attention if he were feeding chicks in the nest.

Fun facts:

  • although Indigo Buntings are about the size of a Goldfinch and the female sort of resembles a female Goldfinch (but lacks those distinctive wingbars), they are actually members of the Cardinal family.
  • the blue color (especially evident in males) does not come from a blue pigment, but is due to special reflective particles in the feathers that scatter light and reflect blue wavelengths.  Read more about blue coloration in animals by clicking here.

Fledging Day

There’s always something interesting going on in the backyard.  Today was Fledging Day for the House Wren family.  It’s kind of like graduation from toddler pre-school, as the fledglings take their first flight from the safety of their home nest box.

house wren fledgling-

Two of the fledglings flew as far as the fence around the garden (about 25 feet) and sat there for a while to recover from all that exertion.  These little ones flew like a butterfly, flapping erratically on unsteady wings a few feet before landing in the grass or bushes.

house wren nestling-

This one could not be enticed from the nest box no matter how much encouragement it got from its parents.

house wren

But my presence near the nest box really set the parents on edge, and they chattered at me continuously using their best scolding calls, which I decided sounded sort of like a slower version of the rattle of a rattlesnake.

house wren

The House Wren parents have been pretty busy the last 2 weeks bringing food to their clutch of chicks.  Now they will have to show them where to find it for themselves.

Feed me!

All over the backyard, a persistent squawking and chirping alerts us to the presence of newly fledged young birds.  In fact, the noise of these youngsters has entirely replaced the melodic singing of breeding adults.  Weaning is a difficult process as any parent knows, because the youngsters understand that the best way to get something is to annoy the parent until they finally give in (sound familiar?).  Some examples I have seen in the past couple of weeks:

Four fledgling House Finches bombarded their dad, urging him to find them some food.  At one point they all sat on the fence directly above him, noisily chirping away.  He looks unconcerned about it.

Four fledgling House Finches bombarded their dad, urging him to find them some food. At one point they all sat on the fence directly above him, noisily chirping away. He looks unconcerned about it.

Dad led them over to the bird feeder, showing them I suppose that this is where you eat.  But they wanted him to stick the seed in their mouths, by chirping continuously and fluttering their wings.

Dad led them over to the bird feeder, showing them, I suppose, that this is where you eat. But they wanted him to stick the seed in their mouths, by chirping continuously and fluttering their wings.  Two young sat next to him, two others perched right above him.

They haven't quite connected the appearance of seed with food -- still too fixed on being fed instead.  A cowbird looks on; she didn't have to worry about feeding her babies, because she left her eggs in someone else's nest!

They haven’t quite connected the appearance of seed with food — still too fixed on being fed instead. A female cowbird looks on; she didn’t have to worry about feeding her babies, because she left her eggs in someone else’s nest!

This is what happens to some of the local birds when cowbirds are in the area.

A Cowbird chick begs incessantly from its foster "parent", a Chipping Sparrow.

A Cowbird chick (left) begs incessantly as it follows its foster “parent”, a Chipping Sparrow around the yard.  Note that the Cowbird is is almost twice the size of the sparrow, and probably developed at the expense of some of the sparrow’s own chicks.  Chipping Sparrows apparently can’t tell the difference between their own eggs and one twice as large!

Brown-headed Cowbird egg in the nest of an Eastern Phoebe (By Frankie Rose (This is my own work.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Brown-headed Cowbird egg in the nest of an Eastern Phoebe (By Frankie Rose [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

Cowbirds are infamous as nest parasites, and lay their eggs in the nests of several different species of small birds.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds because they have to find the nests of suitable species, determine the incubation stage of that nest, and deposit one egg, at will, while parents are off the nest.  If they lay the egg too early, the parents might abandon the nest with a strange egg in it; if they lay the egg too late, their own egg might not get sufficient incubation time for full development.  Having found an appropriate nest, then they have to quickly lay their egg in it.  For comparison, it takes a hen more than 1/2 hour to get her egg out.

Why do they do it?  Brown-headed Cowbirds once followed bison herds across the prairie, moving nomadically with the herds and feeding on the insects flushed by many hooves and the seed heads of prairie grasses.  Nesting in one spot was thus impossible with such a nomadic lifestyle, and “egg-dumping” in other species’ nests became advantageous.

My question is...how does this little guy know who he is?  They obviously avoid the problem the ugly duckling experienced when he fell out of his swan parents' nest.

My question is…how does this little guy know who he is? A cowbird chick apparently avoids the problem the ugly duckling experienced when he got displaced from his swan parents’ nest.