For the Birds: Watching the babies grow

Photo by Chris Bosak — Three young eastern phoebes getting ready to fledge.

As big a thrill as it is to have a bird visit your backyard feeder, it’s an even bigger thrill to have a bird visit a birdbath in your yard. Having a bird land on and eat the dried seeds of a flower in your garden tops both the feeder and bath sighting, in my opinion anyway.

However, a bird nesting in your yard beats them all. Whether the bird makes its own nest in a tree or bush, or if the bird uses a birdhouse, there’s nothing like the thrill of watching birds grow from egg to hatchling to fledgling. 

The birds that nested in my yard this spring have all been very inconspicuous. I see tons of catbirds in my yard and several come around to scold me when I come out to use the grill or sit on the porch. A male cardinal usually joins the admonishment. But I haven’t found a single nest in the brush. 

I see a female hummingbird at the feeder almost every day, but I have no idea where it goes after it leaves. Sometimes it goes left and sometimes it goes right. 

At work, however, I have been lucky enough to watch an eastern phoebe family build and raise young in a nest. It was built under a stairwell leading to the back entrance of the office. I’d check on it before and after work daily.

The first attempt, in early May, was unsuccessful as a brown-headed cowbird egg was placed in the nest among three phoebe eggs. The cowbird, of course, hatched first and demanded the foster parents’ attention. An odd thing happened shortly after, however.

I checked the nest before leaving on a Friday evening and just the cowbird had hatched. When I returned on Monday, the nest was completely empty. No cowbird, no phoebe eggs. Not even signs of egg shells anywhere. I’m guessing a blue jay or crow discovered the nest and carried the eggs and cowbird away for a meal. Or, perhaps the phoebes had hatched and got taken away.

The nest remained empty for a few weeks before I noticed an adult phoebe sitting on the nest again. This time there were four phoebe eggs. I checked daily in the hopes that no cowbird eggs would appear. None did.

A little more than two weeks later, three of the eggs hatched. The babies grew bigger every day, thanks to the tireless effort of the phoebe parents, and eventually fledged in about another two weeks. I saw all five birds in the trees near the nest when I came into work one morning. It was a great way to start the work day.

Now back to that cowbird egg. Brown-headed cowbirds are nest parasites and lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Because the cowbird baby is so large, the host parents unknowingly raise the cowbird at the expense of their own babies. Many bird species, particularly phoebes and some warblers, are victims of this cowbird adaptation.

Previously, I’ve considered removing or cracking the cowbird egg but decided to do a little research first. Most sources, including the major birding associations in the U.S., recommend not removing the egg for several reasons. Cowbirds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, for one. It’s nature taking its course, for another.

I also read that the adult female cowbird may destroy the remaining eggs in a nest if the cowbird egg is removed or broken. I’ve always found that to be odd because if the cowbirds are still around watching the nest, why don’t they just raise a brood themselves? After all, the reason given for laying their eggs in other birds’ nests is that cowbirds are nomadic and don’t have time to raise their own young. If that’s the case, why stay around and watch the host nest?

Anyway, I’m glad this story has a nice ending. I hope those young phoebes grow strong this summer, get to their southern destination safely and return to New England next spring.

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