In spite of the drought and hot weather, this has been a good summer for bird watching and bird reproduction. Our front yard from dawn to dusk is full of birds not only because of the sunflower seeds and shelled corn but also because of the two birdbaths that we clean and refill with fresh water every morning. The grackles especially love to dunk the corn in the water before they eat it. (Video of birdbath!)
I have kept a very informal tally of the number of clutches each of my yard bird species has accomplished this summer. The robins, cardinals, and the chickadees have each had two clutches and may each be working on a third. The house finches have had three and, I think, are starting on a fourth. The grackles, blue jays, and crows have only had single clutches, but their numbers in the front yard are very impressive.
There is a stereotypical aspect to a fledgling that fits bird species from chickadees to crows. The fledge almost always looks confused. It sits on the ground or perches on the fence or tree branch and has an unfocused, head twitching, bewilderment about it. They frequently shift themselves about, too, in order to maintain their balance and orientation and neither land on nor take-off from spots with the fluidity and grace of their elders. Their lack of focus, though, changes immediately when they catch sight of one of their parents. Then they become electrically energized. They open their beaks, extend their heads, flap their wings, and loudly vocalize as they beg their parent for food. This display continues until the parent feeds the fledge or, as often happens after a few days of this intense parental care and feeding, the parent flies away to hide from its offspring in the dense vegetation at the edges of the yard.
We have watched chickadee fledges chasing their fleeing parents through the labyrinth of the branches of our spruce trees. We have watched grackle fledges (that are noticeably larger than their parents because of their fluffed out, youthful feathers) noisily shadow their parents from the ground to the birdbath rim and back again demanding “pre-chewed” food. They are so focused on the parents’ beaks as the fountain for their food that it takes them days to notice the corn pile under their feet! We also watched a crow fledgling balancing clumsily on the wooden top rail of our fence watching its parent quickly and furtively filling its crop with corn in the yard. When the parent flew off to a more secluded spot to grind and process its meal, the fledge fell off the fence, bounced on the ground, and then noisily followed demanding its share.
One of the most interesting fledges of the summer, though, was one that we heard but did not see. Several evenings back in the first part of July we heard harsh, almost cat-like calls coming from up high in a line of trees at the back of one of our neighbor’s yards. The scream came about once a minute and moved from one tree top to the next. It was a fledging great horned owl calling to its parents (and probably scaring off any prey that they might have been hunting nearby). I could picture the large owl fledge all downy and puffed up, opening its beak wide with each scream, sticking its head out straight in front of itself, flapping its wings as it looked about in bewildered manner until one of its parents returned to it with a mouse or vole or some other catch. It would take many months for the owl to learn the complexities of hunting. Its life would be easier, and its learning curve shorter if only it could eat sunflower seeds!