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Surviving the Nest: The Rough Go for Young Birds (and Life in general)

Updated: Dec 28, 2019

Casey McFarland

From the window at my desk I watch the birds that visit the piñon and juniper throughout the day: nuthatches, solitaires, robins, flickers, juncos, bluebirds, chickadees, bushtits and titmice dance about the branches. The Piñon Jays have been passing through in impressive numbers this year, adorning the trees with their busy, gray-blue bodies.

Among them all are young of the year, who at this point have already survived a wild gauntlet of obstacles. Some arrived to this particular landscape recently, and many that are picking at juniper berries or tapping at the tough shells of piñon nuts did so for the first time not long ago.

These youngsters have overcome the very significant hurdle of surviving life in the nest, as well the weeks in which they learn to fly, feed, and orient themselves to a world of constant threat. Those early days are tough: a wide variety of predators—many of whom specifically key in on this vulnerable larder each spring—voraciously hunt for eggs and nestlings. A summary of nesting success showed that only about half of some 22,000 eggs of various species in open cup nests fledged young birds (Nice 1957). If they survive the prying eyes, noses, teeth and talons that seek them out, sudden storms, hail, high winds, roasting sun, or plummeting temperatures leaves many a tiny carcass behind. Fledgling birds often leave the nest clumsy, noisy, and unprepared for the experienced predators who await them.

To boot, large scale habitat alteration, relentless pressure from non-native species (and yes, house cats are high on the list, as much as we may love them) and global climatic fluctuation can all make nesting success even harder for many species.

For every young bird we see each fall, we can think about the many who didn’t make it; they offer us a reminder that Life is tough and that no species is immune to Earth’s endless cycle of birth and decay. For many modern humans the risk of predation or exposure to harsh elements has been dramatically reduced, and it is often too easy to overlook the ever-gnashing jaws of ecological law. Regardless, the fact remains that a great deal of luck is involved in living out a long and healthy life.

For us, cancer, heart disease, and auto crashes--to name but a few--have largely replaced the sudden grip of fanged hunters, and too commonly stop short our hopes for life ahead and what we assumed of our earthly trajectory. Our own survivorship, though obscured by the protective bubble of cushy living, remains just as significant a force as it is for those critters living wildly nearby.

I think about these things as I watch the birds, and as I write about the cradles that they build to bring their young into a dangerous and beautiful world. I like wondering about those young out there—what their experience of the first snow was like a month ago, and how many of their kind they’ve seen snatched up in their short time on earth and how that’s shaped their perspective of the land around them. I wonder what they know already of the neighborhood, how they see the stars at night, if they prefer a piñon or a sunflower seed, and what it’s like to look into a window and see a strange and curious animal looking back out.

*Nice, Margaret Morse. "Nesting success in altricial birds." The Auk 74, no. 3 (1957): 305-321

A Plumbeous Vireo egg. This nest was built along a small creek in the high desert, and cattle lumbered through the brush there, knocking the tidy nest from its place and spilling its contents.

Life is hard on the other end, too: I'd watched this finch as she sat warming her eggs on chilly mornings, but on returning months later I found her dead atop the nest, her eggs unhatched beneath her. Was she sick? An older bird? Did she sustain a wound from the long needles of cactus in which she built her nest?

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