Ugly “duckling”?

Sometimes the very young offspring of otherwise beautiful adults can be surprisingly homely.

Common Moorhen and chick

A Common Moorhen and her chick swam around in the lagoon channels at Los Pantanos de Villa reserve.

Maybe it’s the bald head and unruly bristled feathers that make the chick of the Common Moorhen so unattractive.  The adults are rather striking with their red and yellow facial patterns and lustrous purple-black plumage.  Curiously, we only saw one chick; were the others eaten or just in hiding?

common Moorhen

These and other marsh birds weren’t easy to spot in the lagoons lined with dense layers of narrow leaf cattails.

Trails through the cattails at Los Pantanos de Villa reserve, Lima, Peru

Every now and then, an opening in the cattails allowed us a glimpse of the waterways.

We managed to see a few other species through the cattail barriers, like this Andean Coot, a larger version of our common American Coot.

Andean Coot

Usually seen in large flocks, this lone Andean Coot was patrolling the edges of the waterways. The bill and shield color are highly variable in this species, and are more typically yellow (bill) and chestnut (shield).

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebes seem to be found everywhere. This one is decked out in its breeding plumage, because of course, it’s summer here.

House Wren chick

This little House Wren chick clicked incessantly for its parent to come feed it. The yellow gape at the base of its bill indicates that it has only recently fledged.

Not exactly an ugly duckling in the same way that the Moorhen chick was, but not quite ready for prime time yet either, as its wing and tail feathers are not fully developed.  It’s kind of a teen-ager at this stage of its life.

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.

Bird brains

Despite what we might think, birds do have personalities, and can be quite different  from one another even within the same species.  Take the case of two House Wrens who happen to be nesting quite close to one another in cute little wren boxes in this lovely garden (of a friend).

Diamond-shaped boxes  with just the right-sized holes attract House Wrens.

Diamond-shaped boxes with just the right-sized holes attract House Wrens.

My presence (along with that of a friendly cat) immediately set the wrens to chattering and scolding.  I could see that they were busy feeding their broods in the nest box, so I stood quietly and watched.

One wren was quite perturbed by my presence and flew from perch to perch, trying to decide whether it was safe to enter her nest box or not.  She had a juicy caterpillar to feed her chicks.

I assume this is a female because she still has a bare abdominal area where her brood patch was.  First she sat in a tree and scolded me.

I assume this is a female because she still has a bare abdominal area where her brood patch was.  First she sat in a tree and scolded me.

Then she sat on a tomato cage and scolded me, quite loudly considering that she kept her beak closed around that caterpillar.

Then she sat on a tomato cage and scolded me, quite loudly considering that she kept her beak closed around that caterpillar.

Then she moved to within about 6 feet of the nest box, but still hesitated to enter.  That caterpillar is starting to look dehydrated.

Then she moved to within about 6 feet of the nest box, but still hesitated to enter. That caterpillar is starting to look dehydrated.

Oops, what happened to the caterpillar -- did she drop it or eat it?  She is sitting right opposite the nest box and giving me a piece of her mind.

Oops, what happened to the caterpillar — did she drop it or eat it? She is sitting right opposite the nest box and giving me a piece of her mind.

Contrast this behavior with that of another wren (couldn’t tell if it was male or female) feeding its offspring in the box next door.

"I have something to feed my babies -- don't look while I approach."  This wren made two short hops in a bush next to the nest box and then popped inside.

I have something to feed my babies — don’t look while I approach.” This wren made two short hops in a bush next to the nest box and then popped inside with a big, juicy fly.

Task completed -- off to find another meal.

In and out, task completed — off to find another meal.

You can see how natural selection might act here, depending on the type of threat.  Wren A’s chicks might not get fed as well and perhaps not all of them would fledge but she doesn’t give away the location of the nest. Wren B’s chicks might get lots of food, but could be easily discovered by a predator, since the bird made no attempt to disguise where it was headed with its prey.  Good thing there is such variation in behavior among individuals, insuring that some will exhibit the appropriate response and survive.

Mighty mite

House Wrens are small but feisty.  Every bit as high energy as the busiest warbler, they bustle about the bushes scaring up food, and scaring off potential competitors. Put out a bluebird box, and you are just as likely to wind up with a house wren in there instead.  In fact, these little tyrants will kick out the eggs and even young of other species just to take over the nest box.  Then they stuff the box full of sticks all the way up to the entrance hole to prevent anything else from getting in.

Male and female house wrens look alike, but this bird was paying close attention to a singing male, so perhaps this is Mrs. Wren in the typical wren posture, tail pointed up.

Male and female house wrens look alike, but this bird was paying close attention to a singing male, so perhaps this is Mrs. Wren in the typical wren posture, tail pointed up.

And here he is, singing his lovely warble.  Wrens usually change singing perches frequently, but this male stayed several minutes while I moved closer.

And here he is, singing his lovely warble. Wrens usually change singing perches frequently, but this male stayed several minutes while I moved closer.

Young birds in nest boxes or tree cavities are susceptible to parasitic mites and flies; in fact, heavy parasite infestations can sap baby bird growth so much they fail to mature.  But house wrens have a strategy for dealing with this:  they capture egg sacs of spiders and import them to the nest box to feed on the parasites.  Problem solved.

house wren

Their aggressive behavior and adaptability to a variety of habitats and climates has enabled house wrens to become one of the most widespread species in the western hemisphere. It is a permanent resident throughout South America and can be found breeding from Canada south through the West Indies and Central America. The mighty mite is a big success.