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Making the Baby Bird Rounds

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I had 21 bluebirds and 15 Carolina chickadees to keep alive, in weather like this: 48 degrees and raining nonstop. 

I hand-fed 18 of the bluebirds four times that day (four were too old to feed; I risked causing premature fledging), and after feeding them I left bug omelet on the roofs of their boxes and those of the chickadees, and to a bird each parent fed that stuff to its babies as soon as I was gone. The older babies got fed--I just crept up and put some live mealworms mixed with bug omelet on top of their box and the parents did the rest.

I'd just get back from rounds (some of the boxes are about five miles away from my house) and it would be time to cook up another couple of omelets and head out again. I was thankful for the bluebirds who'd gape for me right off the bat, like this little shaver. Oh, they were hungry!

                                                         photo by Liam Thompson

The Carolina chickadees were tricky. They're smarter than bluebirds, and they won't gape for just anybody who whistles at them the way young bluebirds will, so I had to leave food for the parents on their box roofs. It worked. The parents fed it to them.

I found one chickadee baby choking down an enormous green caterpillar. It was swallowing it just like a snake, lying on its belly, working that thing down its gullet, tossing its head back and forth as it forced the oversized item down. Amazing. You can see its tiny wings thrown out for leverage. There are nine in this nest. Thereby hangs another story for another time. Yes, that's my doing, too. Update: All nine of the chicks in the photo below are fledging as of 11 AM Thursday, May 26! Lots of chickadee-dee-deeing going on in the backyard right now, clown-lipped babies popping their heads out of the hole...what joy!

In any clutch, I find the runt (see it at the bottom) usually begs the most vigorously. I love runts.  They know they have some catching up to do. These are bluebirds, about Day 6.

 Here's a nest of 11-day-old bluebirds with their bug omelet. I use a bent dentist's forceps for feeding.  I had to force-feed about half the bluebirds since they wouldn't gape. The older they are, the less likely they are to gape, even if they're starving. They're suspicious of this big colorful ape with a forceps.

The tree swallows sat moping, hungry in the rain, but they ignored both bug omelet and live mealworms placed on their box tops. They'd just step aside as a mealworm would crawl by. Aerial insectivores are very tough to help, being hard-wired to take their food only on the wing.

Hang in there, little swallow. The rain will stop, sometime.

Luckily this pair had only eggs yet laid. Five, and they kept them warm through the cold spell.

It was a heck of a day. I gave up on accomplishing anything but pulling these baby birds through. I just stayed in my rain suit and tromped from box to box.

photo by Liam Thompson

But the rewards were immense--live, warm baby bluebirds and chickadees, who were 100% stronger and healthier at the end of that long, long day than they were at its start. They'd all have died if I hadn't made the effort, and knowing that made it all worthwhile.

photo by Liam Thompson

My photographer was pleased, too.

monkeycam photo by Liam Thompson


I'm always amazed at how birds create their nests, and it always comes out perfect. Richard from the Amish settlement of Lebanon county.

Thanks so much for taking us along on your rounds. Fascinating.

Wonderful post! Thank you so much!

Posted by Anonymous May 26, 2011 at 7:53 AM

I am as always in awe of you Julie!

"I pray to the birds because I believe they carry the messages of my heart upward."

Now that sure applies here.

I wonder, would they really have all died? I love that you take care of them and admire that, but it seems that "nature" is smarter. Are you having extremely colder weather than normal? Just curious why you would need to step in and help.

NW Nature Nut, 48 degrees and raining for three days nonstop may be normal weather in the Northwest, but it's anomalous in southern Ohio for late May, when it should be in the 60's and 70's. Sorry if I didn't make that clear enough. (I think my friend Murr in Portland OR wondered the same thing). When I intervened, early in the morning of the third day, the chicks were clearly starving, and you would have smiled to see how much brighter and more responsive they were on the second feeding than the first. When they quit responding and gaping for food, the parents quit feeding them, and I stepped in just at that delicate point.

Yes, of course, nature is "smarter" than soft-hearted humans, and she would have cleaned them all out, but I didn't fancy the notion of losing 36 baby bluebirds and chickadees if I could do anything to prevent it. Now they're fledging, healthy and fully feathered. Unnatural? Perhaps. Better to let them starve? You tell me.

Unnatural intervention to feed them? Sure. But then so are my nest boxes. Highly unnatural. Technically, the birds don't "need" to have artificial nest cavities put up for them. Is putting up and monitoring nest boxes and feeding the young through cold snaps worth the effort to me? Absolutely. I'd argue that fostering more bluebirds and Carolina chickadees is a good thing, especially considering the odds both face in finding suitable cavities, fighting house sparrows, and, in the chickadees' case, bouncing back from a devastating West Nile virus epidemic.

Where the heck is the "like" button for comments?

Wow! This story just made my day. Thank you for sharing your adventures. Susan E.

Posted by Anonymous May 26, 2011 at 9:43 AM

Julie, When you post like this, you bring tears to my eyes. Thank you for being there for all those helpless little beings. Sure, nature helps her own, but in nature lots of things happen that we'd like to avoid. Wouldn't you stop your car to pick up a turtle and help it across a busy road? I guess that in some people's minds, that would be unnatural as well! You are one of the most wonderful natural/unnatural people I know of! :-)

Thank you, oh Sialia Savior. Good work you Poecile Protector.

You are my hero! I had no idea weather could affect birds like this; I just try to keep my black oil sunflower seed feeder full and don't think about it beyond that. Of course, I knew the bug-eaters dined elsewhere, but didn't think about how they might be faring. We have Western Bluebirds in the area, but no nest boxes on our place. I will have to look up those PVC boxes that the sparrows don't like, and have some up for next year!

Good story, good discussion, and GREAT portrait of the tree sparrow int the rain.

Job well done, Julie, bird whisperer.

I can just picture you and Chet scurrying about, our world is a better place because of you.

You are indeed a hero. I can just imagine what it's like tramping from one nest box to the next in a rain suit, cold and damp and tired but knowing it's incredibly worth it. Feathers's comment above about moving turtles off roads hit home as well, as that's something I've been up to lately, rescuing terrapins from the causeway in the marsh...

Atta girl!
Giving up a day of your life as a human wife & mother to care for those nestlings will certainly earn you a set of angel wings or at least a halo.
Thank you for this uplifting post and please thank Liam for his photography. That boy knows how to use an iPhone well!
2 years ago we lost a nest filled with tiny Tree Swallows in weather such as yours. Reports said that many adult swallows died during the cold & unusual wet here in Wisconsin.

I have to admit I always kind of wondered what birds did in a downpour, but I assumed they did okay. I do know what my own chickadee parents are doing: showing up damp with little green worms. I don't see swallows often right here. For that matter, what do the insects do? I know what the apes do. Complain.

What a GREAT POST. Thanks Mommy!

What a wonderful, uplifting post! BTW, your photographer rocks.

I'd love to know how you make a bug omelet!

Thanks for this interesting post and all the beautiful pictures.

I only need to look at the photo in the previous post (of the poor dead baby birds) to understand in full your motivation.
Unusual is almost always good.
Stay as weird as you are! (Think archaic definition of weird--having to do with determining fate...of baby birds.)

Thanks for the wonderful post!

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