It’s that time of year when babies and other youngsters are suddenly all over the place. And I’m not just talking about your visiting grand kids or your wife’s cousin’s kids. Baby birds are also everywhere now, livening up our beaches, woodlands, and especially our backyards with their awkward antics.
In my yard, I’ve had recently fledged robins, catbirds, and big, boisterous roving family bands of both titmice and chickadees in the last two weeks. It’s fun to watch the antics of the youngsters as they flop around in the trees learning how to be birds. As they get older, you can watch the adults become less willing to feed them, ignoring the imploring begging calls of the now teenage fledglings. This tough love is necessary if the chicks are going to survive on their own. You can practice this at home by putting a padlock on the fridge when your kids try to move back home after college.
Baltimore oriole chicks in particular seem to be everywhere right now, in part because they are so incredibly noisy. Even when they are still in the nest, they can’t keep quiet – with all the predators around, it’s a miracle any of them survive to fledge. But fledge they do, and once you learn their raspy chuckling begging call, you will realize just how many young orioles are out there right now. If you’re lucky, they are visiting your yard with their brightly colored dad, and you can increase your chances exponentially with an oriole feeder full of grape jelly.
The other day I noticed some mysterious fledgling sounds coming from the edge of my yard and went to investigate. There I found a rather generic looking brownish fledgling with faintly streaked underparts hanging out in an oak and waiting to be fed. This was no ordinary chick – this was a Brown-headed Cowbird, and I knew what was coming next. Sure enough, an adult Song Sparrow showed up presently and stuffed an insect into the noisy cowbird chick’s mouth.
The deal is, cowbird females lay their eggs in the nest of other birds, a practice known as brood parasitism, and Song Sparrows are a frequent victim. This sparrow did not raise any of its own chicks, having been tricked into feeding this aggressive, giant baby Huey and ignoring its own babies. Yellow Warblers are another frequent victim of cowbirds, and you can often see them feeding the much larger cowbird chicks around shrubby wetland borders where they nest.
Back in your yard, if you find baby birds on the ground, in most cases you should just leave them alone – the parents know where they are and will feed them until they can fly on their own. If they are really young, meaning they aren’t feathered yet, they need to be returned to the nest if you can find it. Don’t believe the old myth that a baby bird will be rejected by the parents if handled by a human. If you can’t find the nest and the parents clearly aren’t tending them anymore, then take very young chicks to a wildlife rehabilitator like Wild Care in Eastham. The good folks at Wild Care stress that, whatever you do, you shouldn’t take them into your house and try to feed them, which can do more harm than good. Besides, you have enough mouths to feed until those grand kids leave.