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Zick's Bluebird Survival School: Update on Our Alumni

Friday, May 26, 2023

I'm sweating. I just finished planting my snap beans, which means it's warm enough to do such a thing at long last, on May 24. The cold, miserable early May we endured is a nasty memory now, though I still start my morning walks with long pants and a decent jacket.  I have been collecting sweet reminders of the work I did in the first three days of May, to save some little souls when the weather turned horrible and the skies opened up for three straight days.

I coined the term "Perma-rain" while watching this sluggish and apparently endless storm factory squatting over us.

The only way it changed was to get bigger, pumping continuous rain over the chilled land.

Out by the oilwell at the end of my meadow, five baby bluebirds had just hatched on May 1. This was the first box I visited, and I had a syringe of warm baby bird formula against my chest as I trudged out, bundled in a down jacket. It was that cold. 

When it's that cold, parent bluebirds can't find insects for their babies, so I stepped in to supplement. Liam made this video for me on May 2. These were lucky birds, just a long walk down the meadow from my house.

But there were more out on the county roads, and I gathered my gear and steeled myself for what I knew I'd find this frigid wet morning. The first box I checked out on my trail on May 2, next to a little Methodist churchyard cemetery, broke my heart clean in two.  Five bluebird lives, wasted by the rain. I got there too late to save them.

It's a hard photo to look at, but I want you to understand what motivates me, because I'm sure a lot of people think crazy, running around hand-feeding bunches of baby bluebirds in their boxes. Maybe that's crazy in some people's books. Should I just shrug and say, "Tough luck!" to the 27  baby bluebirds that I knew were in my boxes when the weather turned horrible? C'est la vie, this is what happens to early nests?

Should I pretend I don't know what's happening in those boxes?  Or should I do something crazy and try to save them all?

 I'm not crazy. I prefer to think of it as an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to the birds nesting in my boxes. As it turned out, these were the only ones that died due to weather, but for me, that was five too many. I knew I'd lose all the rest if I didn't act.

Bug omelet is baked ground eggshell, egg, milk, dried flies from Carolina Biological Supply
all fried up. Very stanky, but it brings baby bluebirds back to life toot sweet!

I fed bug omelet to all the babies on my trail on May 2 and 3, three times a day, until I had to leave at 1:30 on May 3 to work at the New River Birding and Nature Festival in Fayetteville WV. Talk about cutting it close! It stopped raining and started to warm up only late the afternoon of May 3, and the weather somehow magically held until I got back. If we'd had another day of rain and 40's, with me away, they might have died, and all that work and all these little lives would have gone to waste. 

What I'm going to do now is take you around to the nestboxes with babies, and show you what was in there on May 2, and then I'll show you what happened with each of those broods. This post has taken me days to put together and write--very nitpicky work. I hope you enjoy it.

These five babies along my township road were the very first to hatch, and too old to feed! I shot this photo through the entry hole. They were too suspicious; they might have jumped out of the box had I opened it and tried to feed them. So I left a jar lid of mealworms on the roof of the box, and the parents completely ignored the food for a day and a half.  D'oh!!! How to get food to them? OK. Maybe food on the roof of the box just doesn't make sense to them. On the second day, I placed a fresh dish of wriggly mealworms on the ground underneath the box, and THAT made sense to the adults. They emptied it three times, stuffing those starving babies full. I was elated!

Still kickin' May 3 and finally stuffed with food--they're going to make it! I left a huge slug of mealworms for them right before I left for WV. :)

When I returned from the New River festival on May 8, these lovelies had fledged.  I cleaned the box, and Mom has built a fresh nest as of May 26. On we go!

Next box: When I got way down on Whipple Run the morning of May 2, I found these three sick skinny babies, badly dehydrated from eating earthworms. When it's cold and rainy you'll see birds foraging in the middle of the pavement, picking up earthworms. I'll always wonder how robins thrive on them, because they're a horrible food for bluebirds. Earthworms give bluebirds dysentery. The neat little white fecal sacs that baby birds normally produce fail to form and the nest quickly becomes soaked with wet feces. Chilling follows. Nestling bluebirds fed earthworms in cold wet weather are among the most miserable creatures I know.

The thing, then, is to give them something better than earthworms. Bug omelet and mealworms to the rescue! And a fresh clean nest of dried hairgrass! Muuuch better than the sodden filthy poop-soaked mess they were huddled on. I could feel their relief at being fed and clean at last.

Here they are on May 3, after the nest change and gobs of egg food. I also left huge amounts of mealworms in a jar lid atop the box, and the adults wasted no time in stuffing their babies full. 
What a difference a day, abundant food and a dry nest can make!

And LOOK at them on May 8! Would you ever believe these are the same birds as the ones in the video?

Ahh, they're so beautiful when they're healthy. And that's the impetus, that's the reason I do this--I know I can save them, and the rewards are so very clear and rich, that I am compelled to do it. I see in my mind's eye what they could become and I can't stop until we get there.

Third box: In a nearby box on Stark Hollow Road, more babies were subsisting on earthworms. In this dimly lit photo, you can see the chick on the right has a dead worm pasted across both its nostrils, which must be very uncomfortable. It had tried to swallow it--the two ends of the worm were in its mouth--but it got looped across then dried on.

I took them out of the box, peeled off the worm, and found more earthworm gunk cemented to its sibling's left eye. (middle bird in the photo below). I peeled that off, too. I have to wonder what would have happened had I not removed it. These chicks are developing so fast you do NOT want anything stuck to their vital parts. These photos taken May 2.

I got the idea to prop my cellphone on the steering wheel so I could make a decent video of me feeding Bug Omelet to the babies. This is straightforward, and easy.

What's not easy is having to force-feed babies who won't gape. I have only two or three chances to feed these birds in a day. Each round takes me an hour and a half to complete, getting around to all the boxes. 
I'm not taking "No thank you" for an answer. You're getting fed each round, Pipsqueak, and you're going to eat as much as all your siblings. No time for your finicky stuff.

Followup: Here is the same nestful of five down in Stark Hollow, on May 8. They're out of danger and beautiful. 

Fourth box: The Eddy nest got started early, and the babies were ready for mealworms by the time I got there on May 2. (Babies can't digest the chitin on the larvae until they're at least a week old, which is why I have to feed bug omelet to most of them). I started them off with bug omelet the first day and then left gobs of mealworms atop the box for the parents to divvy out. 

What a beautiful sight greeted me on my return May 8.

The Eddy babies were old enough to sex by the color of their wings. Bet you can tell which are the males. There are three, two of them showing lots of blue, and the lone female is touching my thumb. See how gray her wing is by comparison? It's easy to sex 12 day old babies.

Now, Box 1 again. Back to those babies out by my oilwell, the first ones I fed...
Here they are on May 9, plump and fit. 

Day 9 Oilwell box

By May 11, they were feathering out...

Day 11 Oilwell

and on May 15, I could see that all four were females. What riches!

Day 15 four females Oilwell

These little darlings fledged somewhere around May 20. Phewww! Relief.

All told, there were 21 more baby bluebirds in the world than there would have been had I not intervened. No question in my mind that these babies would have died in that cold rain. I lost five, but kept 21 going until the weather warmed, and that felt really good. 

This is the fourth spring in a row that I've had to feed bluebirds in their boxes. In 2020, I fed them a total of nine days in April and May (Thank God I didn't have to go to WV that year--I'd have lost them all). 2020 is the year by which all others will be measured. Remember all those starving orioles and tanagers and kingbirds that showed up at people's feeders? Yeah. That was 2020. 
2021 was almost as bad. 2022 had only one day of hideousness. 2023 had three. 
Every. Dang. Year. 

The climate is changing so fast, and we are all caught with our pants down. Extremes are extremier. Springs in the Midwest are late and cold and wet as sin now. The normally gray and rainy Pacific Northwest has fried; California has drowned. And the hurricanes down South...well, I guess I'll take the horrible Mays out here in the middle. I'll be thankful it isn't any worse. 

Signing off from CrazyTown,



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