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Take Me Outside

Take Me Outside: Nesting phoebes are a sign of the season

Each spring I enjoy knowing that the eaves of my porch provide a nursery for a family of Eastern phoebes. This year is no exception – we have babies! For the past week I’ve been watching and listening as tiny waving heads with proportionally huge and gaping mouths poke over the edge of their moss covered nest. Those mouths emit high pitched peeping sounds each time one of the parent birds arrives with a beak full of insects to stuff down their throats. This constant consumption of food enables these fragile nestlings to grow and prepare for flight in about 18 days. Before I know it, the brood will have fledged and the nest will be quiet again.

At this time of year, bird nests are busy places, and they can come in many forms. Depending on the size and type of bird, the nest could be the size of a golf ball in the case of a hummingbird or as large as a king sized bed, as with a bald eagle. They might be dangling high in a tree the way an oriole’s does, or hidden under a bush on the ground like the wild turkey’s nest. But regardless of the form they take, nests provide a safe place where eggs are laid and babies are raised. Once the young have left, the parents will, too, unless – as in the case of the phoebe, they have a second brood.

After the female lays
her eggs she sits and waits . . . for days. In the case of the phoebe mom, she will incubate her two to six eggs for 16 days. The male phoebe does not share in the incubation or bring food to the female, as occurs in some species. But he will perch nearby when the female occasionally leaves to feed. Her absences are brief. The eggs must be kept warm so that the embryos will develop properly and be ready to hatch out at the appropriate time.

When they hatch, the resting and waiting stop and the feeding frenzy begins. Phoebes are born with their eyes closed, nearly naked, and covered only with sparse gray fuzz. Their most noticeable feature is their mouths, which are outlined with bright yellow “lip liner” so that they are easy to see in the dim light of the nest. This provides a target for the tireless parents, who visit the nest constantly, bringing food to fuel the growth of their young.

During a break from gardening, I watched the phoebe parents alternate this food shuttle. Over a 5-minute period, there were four food deposits. Suddenly I didn’t feel as tired and I honored the work of those parent birds. A rest for them might mean the death of one or more of their offspring.

The constant need for food is one of the reasons why humans don’t make good substitutes for parent birds. Rarely can we keep up with their vigilance. If you find a baby that has fallen out of a nest, it is tempting to help. But the best thing to do, especially if it has feathers, is to put it back in the nest or in a shallow box off the ground near the nest. Most birds have a poor sense of smell and will not abandon a baby that’s been touched by human hands. If the baby is still without feathers, cannot be safely put back in the nest or has truly been abandoned, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. A list can be found at: wildnh.com/Wildlife/wildlife rehabbers.htm

If you want to observe the amazing transformation of fuzzy chicks to feathered fliers and don’t have a nest on your porch the way I do, you can watch three peregrine falcon chicks at their nest on the Brady Sullivan building at 1750 Elm St. in Manchester.

New Hampshire Audubon has set up a web-cam in their nest box which you can access at: nhaudubon.org/birding/peregrine-web-cam

Unless you are using technology, do your nest viewing from a safe distance. Notice the behavior of the parent birds.

If they seem distressed, move away and let them continue their important work undisturbed. Seeing the fledglings take flight will be your reward for cautious observations.

Thanks for the Falcons link, it's cool to watch them.

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