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Saving Baby Birds

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

 I remember a stranger at college coming up and introducing himself, saying that he knew me because someone had told him to look out for an “unusual-looking woman on roller skates.” After thinking about whether I like that description for oh, thirty years, I have embraced it. Unusual works for me. There are a couple of ways in which I am unusual, which readers of this blog will probably readily identify. I can see you there, wagging your hands wildly. “I know! I know!”  No, it’s not being able to identify any kind of animal poop, though that certainly plays a part in my makeup. Here, it’s about feeling unusually responsible for birds.

 I have this trail of bluebird nest boxes, about 25 or so, that I check once a week from April through August. And pretty much every year there is a period when, if I didn’t do something unusual, birds in those boxes would die. We’ve just made it through such a time, in this thoroughly crappy, cold, rainy spring—three days of steady rain and fog, when the mercury barely inched above 50 degrees. Arrrrghh. And baby bluebirds and Carolina chickadees in many of my boxes, slowly starving.

 I went out the afternoon of May 17 to check my boxes. It had been raining and cold for two days straight, temperatures barely inching into the 50's. Opening boxes in weather like that is the opposite of Christmas morning. 
Sure enough, the first box I opened held five perfect, perfectly cold and dead baby bluebirds. My stomach turned into a rock. I was too late to save them.

When it's cold and rainy, the parent birds can't find enough food for their young, or even for themselves. Sometimes the parents get soaked to the skin and can hardly fly. Then their own survival is in question. So they wisely give up and just save themselves. They'll quit incubating near-term eggs; they'll quit feeding starving young. I've lost two clutches of near-term bluebird eggs from abandonment this spring. The birds couldn't find enough to eat to sustain themselves while sitting, and they knew they'd never be able to feed their babies when they hatched. And this is the latest spring on record for bluebird nesting. They waited and waited to lay this year. They knew it was going to be a real bummer of a spring, long before we did.

Ironically, the older the baby birds are when it hits, the more likely they are to succumb to cold and rain. Once baby birds are feathered, the female won't brood them any more, and they get chilled a lot faster than naked young birds who are still being sat upon. Like these in our driveway box, who were very hungry, but still toasty warm:

After that first nasty shock, I found all the other bluebirds and Carolina chickadees in my boxes still warm and clinging to life. They were weak and hungry, but they were alive.

And I had the answer, kept warm in an insulated container, with me. I call it Bug Omelet.

It's scrambled egg with...additions.

Which include dried fly (Musca domestica) larvae (available from Oregon Feeder Insects)

and ground, baked eggshells.

 You fold this all together and fry 'er up in a little butter. Mmmm, nauseating.

But Bug Omelet is superfood for starving baby birds. I have wildlife rehabilitator Astrid MacLeod to thank for this wonderful recipe. I love it because I can keep the dried fly larvae in a big ol’ jar in the cupboard and I always have eggs and eggshell on hand, so I’m ready to feed starving baby birds at the drop of a hat.

 I keep it right next to the eye of newt and toe of frog.


Next: Come with me on my bird-saving rounds.


OK! OK! hurry up! let's go!!

Posted by Anonymous May 24, 2011 at 6:28 AM

this is such a wonderful post--I actually wrote about you and people like you doing this in my column today and just shared your FB link with my FB gang. we have been having similar weather and are still in you ;-)

First the chicken and morels in a pawpaw cream sauce, now bug omelette. YOU should be going on Splendid Table in a couple hours, not me!

Your blog somehow drifted off my radar. Shame on me. I think I've honestly learned something every time I've visited here. Today it's not only your bluebird scrambies, but also confirmation that this spring has been as crappy as I thought (in Michigan)--and what that means for birds.

I'm sure you will deliver it on roller skates.

Fascinating! There's something undeniable odd about feeding eggs to recently-hatched birds, but that's in no way a criticism - much of what makes nature wonderful is odd.

hmmm... bug omelet... you know I'm not so sure I didn't have that once long ago at a Denny's when I was on the road :-( unfond memories...

Could there be an issue with a lack of insulation in a PVC nest box?

Does the chill of a cold Ohio spring get through the thin plastic walls too easily as compared to a natural cavity nest with many inches of wood surrounding it?

It seems like it wood. (sorry)

I know we need nestboxes and how it has helped bring these beauties back.

After the bluebirds have chosen the PVC nestbox, could a wrapper of insulating material be slipped around it without freaking out the parents?

I remember you said the lighter PVC interior kept pest species out, so I assume you would wait until you had committed blues, and then slip some insulating material around it.

I understand the food issue is a separate thing also caused by the cold, but not related to the nest box material.

I'm just hypothesizing when I should be writing final exams and grading papers.

Enlighten me oh AvianAngel.

Sara, tell me more! Were you on Splendid Table? Got a link?? Eee!

Mary, thank you so much for sharing. xo right back.

Banjo, thank you for coming back. I, too, drift on and off of reading blogs--totally get you.

Rebecca, I guess it never occurred to me that egg would be a weird thing to feed baby birds--maybe because I know the yolk is integral to their diet for their first few days.

Cyberthrush, eeeew. Denny's.Eeew. That's why God made mom and pop diners.


Roller skates...snort. For several years of my life, I rolled everywhere, weather permitting. The only thing that grounded me was snow.

I hear you on your subtle point about attracting birds to nest boxes that might not actually be an improvement on natural cavities. It's something I think about, too. I wonder sometimes if by erecting these attractive boxes in habitats that *I* think are good for bluebirds, I'm attracting birds to hayfields where they may not do as well as they might in other spots, especially when the hayfields get long and heavy.

I also take your point about the PVC offering no insulation, but I should point out that birds in my wooden boxes suffered just as much, and they are nice 3/4" cedar wood. While better insulation would doubtless give them an edge, if there's simply no food to be had, there's no food to be had, and that's ultimately what gets them. They might indeed die a little sooner in the PVC boxes, but I'm not planning to let that happen again.

I will, however, be thinking about your thesis on several levels.
As long as you keep calling me Avian Angel...

I just found 5 poor little dead bluebirds in one of my boxes and now I know why - It is so very disheartening. Let's hope this warmer weather is FINALLY here

Posted by weedpullr May 24, 2011 at 7:53 PM

Ready to go!

Posted by Anonymous May 24, 2011 at 8:56 PM

there so cute, i hate to think we even eat chicken. Richard from the Amish settlement of Lebanon county.

It is so sad when baby birds die. Here at Anahuac NWR we are also losing birds due to the drought. We are one of the refuges that manage for the mottled duck, which are already in serious decline. The hurricanes, Katrinia, Rita, and Ike, all made their habitat too salty all along the coast in Texas and Louisiana and the ducklings died. Now their parents are abandoning them and flying off to look for food for themselves. We expect almost no babies this year. I'm hoping the baby green herons I've watched grow up will make it. Their parents are still finding some food for them and they should fledge in another week or so. I have pictures of them in my latest blog.

It airs June 24, Julie. Don't worry. I'll let EVERYONE know.

Good point about the egg. Just hadn't thought of it that way, for some reason.

I'd say exceptional!
I really enjoyed this and can hardly wait for the follow up.

"... eye of newt and toe of frog."
From the unusual, Goodly Birdwitch of Southern Ohio!"

Great concoction!!!

I can't wait to share this recipe with my birder/foodie friends!(And appropriately, the word verifcation is "supsy." I guess overdosing on a bug omelet would be supsis.

I just thought you should know that last summer your help and advice helped me to save a baby bird on my own. He was released back into the wild :) anyways, I'm writing a paper about it all for English. Thanks for your inspiration, Julie.

Posted by Anonymous March 11, 2012 at 2:37 PM
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