Wild Ideas: Class of 2013 wildlife graduates

It’s that time of year, when young things graduate to go on to the next phase in their lives. By the end of May, the tiny, helpless infant animals around my house had grown into almost-self-sufficient teenagers.

It started with the phoebes. One Friday in late May, as I walked by the nest, the five chicks in it looked ready to fledge. They had all their flight feathers and could barely fit into the nest. I’ve seen many clutches of phoebes being raised, but they fledged so quickly I never saw them do it. One minute they were there; the next they weren’t.

Eastern phoebe chicks the day before they left the nest. Photo by Pam Owen.
Eastern phoebe chicks the day before they left the nest. Photo by Pam Owen.

On Saturday morning, I was rounding the corner of the house to the back, where the phoebe nest was, and the young phoebes suddenly exploded out of it and headed for the forest, where their parents were waiting. After a few minutes of fluttering around in the saplings at the edge, the whole family disappeared deeper into the forest. For the next few days, I occasionally saw one of the parents hunting bugs in the yard, and a few times caught a glimpse of what looked like their fledglings in the forest edge but couldn’t be sure.

Two days after the phoebe young disappeared, the Carolina wren babies in the nest on my porch also left, although they didn’t quite look ready to fledge. For weeks, every time I had walked out on the porch, it would shake a bit, and the wren hatchlings would start screaming for food. When I’d look into the nest, which was in a pot of pansies, all I could see were gaping mouths.

Baby Carolina Wrens Begging for Food

Sometimes when I came out of the house, I’d see one of the wren parents flee the nest in a U pattern, flying toward the ground and under my car before rising into the forest on the other side of the driveway. The circuitous pattern, also used by the phoebe mom, likely evolved to keep the adults from being silhouetted against the sky and thus drawing attention to them and the nest.

Unfortunately, my landlady mowed my yard, not knowing the babies were still in the nest. While they had been tolerant of the normal activity on the porch, apparently the noise of the mower was too much and they had fled the nest. I found one still in the pot, one on the railing near it and the others nowhere in sight.

The two on the porch still had some of their fluffy baby feathers, which made me think their departure from the nest was a bit premature. As one demonstrated, they could only take short flights a few inches off the ground. That one disappeared into the forest edge, and I spotted a parent trying to round up the other one near the house. I didn’t know the fate of the other three.

I decided to go into the house for a while and let the parents try to corral their young and escort them to safety. Carolina wren fledglings normally stay with the parents for a while, forming a small flock until the young are ready to be on their own and the parents start another family. When I came back out a couple of hours later, there was no sign of any of the wrens, and I haven’t heard or seen them since.

The next morning, I was walking the dog through the side yard to a forest path and saw a tiny brown bird hopping around in the yard. I thought at first it was one of the wren babies, then saw an adult white-throated sparrow fussing near it, undoubtedly its parent. When I came back from the walk, I couldn’t see either bird, so hoped they’d made it to the shelter of the forest.

Recently hatched Carolina wrens in flower pot respond to vibrations around their nest with gaping mouths and pleadings for food. Photo by Pam Owen.
Recently hatched Carolina wrens in flower pot respond to vibrations around their nest with gaping mouths and pleadings for food. Photo by Pam Owen.

The bird babies weren’t the only ones that were getting ready to go out on their own. A groundhog and a cottontail with their half-grown young moved up to the forest edge along my landlords’ backyard. They took up residence within several feet of each other, but they seemed fine with that. During the cottontails’ feeding sessions on the lawn, one of the gawky teenage bunnies would occasionally turn into a pogo stick, sparking a brief frenzy of play that had the whole family careening in all directions before settling back into eating.

A week after the first clutch of phoebe babies had fledged, the mom was back in the nest, starting her next one. Every time she sees me near her nest when she’s on it, she does her usual U-shaped exit to the forest edge. I took the opportunity that day to check it for eggs and found three. Knowing this was the first day she’d been back to the nest, I figured she wasn’t through laying. When I checked back two days later, there were four.

Phoebes, unlike the Carolina wrens, tend to split parenting chores after a clutch has fledged. Within a week, the mother typically starts the next clutch while the father continues to look out for the fledglings until they can be on their own, when he rejoins his mate to help care of the next batch. Soon the wrens, rabbit and groundhog will likely start another family as well, since all these early-breeding native species are prolific, raising more than one family every year.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 280 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”