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Baby Birds

The only thing more fun than watching birds as they go about their various important tasks in our backyard, is being able to see the adorable babies watch and learn about their new world. We can see them flexing their young wings until the flying and landing procedures become second nature.
  The parent birds bring the babies to the feeder area to teach them about finding food. The little ones start on the ground, hide in a nearby bush or tree, or wait on a feeder perch. The parents will transfer seeds (breaking open shells if necessary) to the baby's wide open mouth. This is accompanied by the incessant crying and begging of "Feed me, feed me now!" The parent bird works tirelessly filling the yawning mouths which still open wide with the soft yellowish gapes that lead to seemingly bottomless pits.
The time period of this feeding and protecting process is relatively short. After several days of guidance and direction the new fledglings are on their own. Most are the size of adult birds and quickly grow into a natural coordination as their feathers come in and mature . Baby birds use the lessons learned by watching their parents and too, their own natural instincts to increase their chances of survival .
...grackle and blue jay main pages
Baby Bird Terminology:

Altricial: Birds totally dependent with no feathers when hatched; without the ability to see, walk, maintain their temperature or feed themselves.

Precocial: Birds with down feathers and capable of walking and feeding themselves; still dependent on adult bird to teach feeding and survival skills, and if necessary migratory patterns; adults also provide protection from predators.

Altricial Baby Bird Types:  

Nestlings: Dependent young altricial birds; beaks not fully formed; few if any feathers or pinfeathers; can't walk, hop or fly; fed in the nest by mother and/or father who also remove fecal sacs to keep nest clean; body temperature maintained by parents and nesting material.

Because trying to observe nestlings can lead to harmful consequences for these little dependent creatures, we will  talk more about fledglings. While human odors are not off-putting to birds, our frequent nest checking can lead predators, who will follow our scent, right to the nest.  Best to wait for the babies to venture forth and leave nesting observations to the experts with their special camera equipment and scientific means of study. (That being said - these robin nestlings were in an easily visible nest built in a hanging pot on a gardener friend's side porch).

Fledglings: Older babies who have left the nest or fledged; feathers have developed; tail is short; capable of walking, hopping and some flying (jump out of nest, not fly); parents still provide care and protection; babies taught  survival skills by adults.

...robin main page


Baby Bird (Fledgling) Characteristics
How Fledglings Look: Body and Feathers

Seemingly contrary to our preconceived notions, most baby birds are just as large as their parents. Mammals tend to their young for longer periods than birds and the birth process necessitates  small young. The bird grows outside the mother and can mature faster. It is felt that the sooner a baby leaves the nest, the greater the survival rate. In the confined nest, he remains a "sitting duck" for predators. The baby bird must also quickly be ready for the colder weather  to come, if he stays in the area or if not he must prepare for migration.

...chipping sparrow main page

The baby bird looks fluffy and disheveled because his contour or body feathers are new and loosely structured. While the new nestling was born naked, he soon acquired downy feathers for insulation in body temperature control. As the down feathers are molted and replaced by juvenile plumage, the baby bird now has wing and tail feathers that will enable flight. 

Sometimes the natal down has not entirely been dropped and temporary stringy tufts remain on the nape of the neck or if left on top of the head, may resemble horns.

...house finch main page

Bristles are specialized contour feathers found in some birds located on eyelids, toes and around the mouth. In the mouth area these rictal bristles protrude forward and perform a sensory function similar to animal whiskers. Some feel they also serve to protect a baby's eyes from  insect legs and /or to keep the insect food from leaving the large mouth.

...tufted titmouse main page

Fledgling tails are often short because the flight feathers are not as mature and lengthy as the tail on an adult bird.

...red-winged blackbird main page

Feather coloration  most closely resembles the mom. Even so, it may be difficult determining the identity of the fledgling. The purpose of the dull colors, spots and streaks is the same for the adult female as the fledglings -- protection by camouflage colored feathers. The pigment for brown birds is melanin which also provides protection from ultraviolet rays.  The most accurate identification of a baby bird is from the proximity, interest and care shown by the nearby adult.

...cardinal main page

How Fledglings Look: Eye Coloration

Variation of eye color can be a great indication of fledging or adult. The young may have irises that are dull.  The muddiness of the eye clears as the crystalline of the iris matures. Eye color may also change completely in some adult birds.

...grackle main page

How Fledglings Look: Beak and Mouth

A new bird has a sharp spot on the top of his beak called an egg tooth. This structure enables him to break out of his shell. It disappears soon after the eggshell is broken apart.

The beak and mouth area of the baby bird greatly differs from the parents in many ways. The color of the throat and mouth linings range from yellow to orange to red. These bright colors seem to serve as easy targets for the adults to aim and drop the food. There has been some indication that the redder the color the more urgent the need for sustenance and the more likely that baby gets immediate attention.

The beak is often dark (even if the adults have light or brightly colored ones). The gape (the intersection between the upper mandible and lower mandible ) is still very soft and flexible allowing the mouth to open as wide as possible. This feature allows the baby to receive large amounts of food from the feeding adult at one time. The gape eventually hardens and darkens as the fledgling learns to feed himself.  When the mouth is closed the gape takes a downward turn giving the baby a sad, endearing look. The color of the whole bill usually changes with maturity.

...house sparrow main page

How Fledglings Sound: Vocalization

Even as nestlings, baby birds quickly learn to remain still and quiet when feeling threatened. Hiding, not moving or vocalizing, and camouflage coloring are fledglings' survival tactics.  Otherwise, when hungry, the baby uses short, loud and repeated notes to remind parents where they are and to hurry up with the food.  As an adult with goodies approaches, the call increases in frequency and volume. (The incessant noise is fair warning to get the camera ready.

Just as baby birds must learn many skills for survival, they also acquire and personalize their songs and vocalizations. Some seem born to certain songs and others adapt to local variations or mockery of nearby noises. Listening to parents communicating and learning their ways, is essential to maturity, reproduction, migration and longevity.

How Fledglings Behave: Begging

Even if  a fledgling is not actively calling and crying, he may be perched somewhere with beak occasionally open in anticipation of being fed (called gaping). He may follow an adult everywhere, begging for food.

...chipping sparrow main page

How Fledglings Behave: Parental Feeding

The baby will open his beak allowing the adult to place his own beak and deposit food well into the fledgling's mouth.

Of course, it is instinctual to be fed in this manner, from the time of leaving the egg.
The fledgling still has the gape enables him to open wide in order to receive the food from the parent bird. As he becomes more independent and can procure his own nourishment the gape disappears.

...house sparrow main page

How Fledglings Behave: Inactive Perching

It is striking to see a bird just sitting on a perch looking around.  Sometimes the baby seems content to stay quiet and wait. But a younger bird will frantically try to follow the adult, who is  usually very busy procuring food for the youngsters and their own needs.

Often a baby bird will sit with wings down  looking helpless.

Remaining quiet and still is often in response to an adults warning call. This and camouflage coloring is crucial for the survival of the fledgling.

... downy main page

 ...song sparrow and tree swallow main pages  

How Fledglings Behave: Hiding Undercover

Until the fledgling is comfortable flying, he often hides under bushes, in garden beds, under lawn chairs and natural covers. Parent birds often swoop down to keep them fed.

While proving to make photographing babies more difficult, it is worth the trade-off to have a higher survival rate for the fledglings born in our yard.

...goldfinch main page

How Fledglings Behave: Ground Hopping

Fledglings leave the nest before their full flight feathers have grown in. They spend some time on the ground, hopping and hiding at first.  The tendency of a human observer may be to make an attempt to return the baby to the nest. But chances are, a parent bird is nearby and  is in the process of caring, teaching and feeding the seemingly helpless baby.

...song sparrow main page

How Fledglings Behave: Short Flights and Awkward Landings

As flight feathers and confidence grow, the fledgling takes short, clumsy flights. The goal is to follow the parents to higher feeders. Landings are uncertain and wing fluttering helps gain balance and  parental attention.

While young birds appear to puzzle over the real function of their wings, they instinctually use them to balance in landings and  to maintain a steady seat on a perch.

...house finch main page


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