Monday, April 30, 2007

Time to Fly

It is Fledgling Central here at the minor premises. The first round of nestling birds are moving out of the nest, and we, having dogs, are on tenterhooks every time the back door is opened.

Last year, having lost a nestful of thrashers, I fenced off a large rhododendron bush and the stand of privet behind it. Last week, Baby spotted a cardinal chick in the privet. We could see a nest that looked to be tilted farther up in the underbrush, and the adult cardinal pair were frantically searching and calling above.

The chick sat very still, thankfully safely behind my fence. It had been cheeping back at the parents at first, but fell silent on our arrival. It was quite recently molted into its fledgling plumage but was still feathers short of full flight plumage. Its partly-sprouted crest feathers stuck out in all directions, giving it the appearance more of a miniature harpy eagle than a cardinal. We're lucky to see cardinals at this stage at all; their parents don't normally parade them around in public. The juvenile cardinals that accompany the males to our bird feeders have long tail feathers and are fully able to fly. I'm still kicking myself for not thinking to get the camera and trying to photograph it; online pictures at this stage seem to be fairly uncommon although there are plenty from a slightly later age. As the chick was fenced in and didn't seem to be in any distress, we decided to get out of the way for a while so its parents could find and tend to it. We rounded up the dogs and took them inside.

About half an hour later, we slipped outside again. The parents were still moving back and forth across the yard, and the chick was gone from its perch. Baby located it again after some exploration; it was now sitting in another clump of privet behind the back fence. I wish I could have seen the parents move it; there are a fair amount of yard and a large shed between the original perch and its second location. It would have had to travel a good 45 feet, either flying directly across the part of the yard without underbrush or in short hops from shrub to shrub around the other side of the shed.

The parents were farther up a nearby pine tree, and calling loudly. We again backed off, and on our return the chick had moved once more and was nowhere to be seen. We could still make out the parents moving to and fro between the pine and the neighbors' shed roof nearby and guessed that the chick had been relocated somewhere in the tangle of branches and vines in its crown. We haven't seen it again since, although the parents move around the yard daily and the male energetically evicted a potential claim jumper this morning. (Male cardinals establish territories and will keep out other cardinals.) We're watching the feeder with interest for the social debut of the new cardinal family member.

Yesterday was the turn of the brown thrashers. We spotted a fledgling toward evening sitting atop one of the smaller rhodos, outside the safety zone. It was, alas, another perfect photo op that didn't occur to me until after the fact; young thrashers aren't what you'd call subtle. The yard being full of dogs at the moment, I scooped it up (this took a few tries--while you can practically touch them when they're sitting still, they'll try to jump out of your hands if you grab them) and moved it inside my fence. It hopped out of my reach and sat on a branch until one of its parents came for it.

Our next-door neighbors have a large, overgrown privet bush in their backyard which provides excellent cover and is home to all sorts of wildlife (and of which the root system is probably responsible for the proliferation of still more privet around our yard) including the thrashers' nest, but the fledglings seem to like to disperse over our less dense undergrowth. This can be problematic as fledgling thrashers are big and ungainly (according to Cornell's All About Birds site, they fledge a little earlier than most of their relatives) and for a few days at least their flight is slow, clumsy, and unpredictable. Being undergrowth birds they are generally close to the ground as well. Our retriever mutt figured out last year how easy it is to knock a thrasher fledgling out of shrubbery, to the detriment of our yard thrasher population. They will land on open ground and aren't always quick enough to get out of harm's way, which is how we ended up losing one this morning. We're determined not to lose any more this summer. For now, the dogs are going out in pairs instead of all four at once. They will have to get acclimated to the dog run, of which they aren't fond; hopefully nobody will rip out the chain link with his teeth this year. I've got the run located across the yard from the underbrush, so I'm hoping no thrasher fledglings decide to fly in there. I'm afraid it will just be a matter of natural selection for any one who does.

Another good account of fledgling thrasher behavior may be found here.
Audubon's account of thrasher defensive mobbing behavior is here.

Ken Hanson of Hawks Ridge Images has posted a large selection of really nice pictures of many birds, including brown thrashers and Northern cardinals. Images include juvenile cardinals, some of which are probably only a little older than the one we spotted in our account above.
Chipperwood has nice closeups of adult male and female and juvenile Northern Cardinals.
I am looking for a good image of a thrasher fledgling, and will post it when I find it. As the dogs need an escort these days, I may start carrying the camera outside with me. Maybe I'll get lucky!

UPDATE 4/30 9:20 p.m.: I may have glimpsed the cardinal fledge this evening at sunset. It was hard to tell for sure as I was viewing it against the setting sun, but it seemed to fly fairly well. Still sticking to the trees and shrubbery, though.

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