A Fledgling Observed

Carolina Wren Fledgling
Moments after leaving the nest a Carolina Wren fledgling hides beside a garbage can.

In late summer, most bird pairs have already laid their eggs and fostered their nestlings to a size that is capable of flight, a mass of feathers weighing no more than half an ounce. If you are lucky you may see these birds leaping about a nest in anticipation for food from the parent birds. But at this size, the parent birds are away from the nest slowly weaning their chicks off of the provided meals, making patient calls, waiting for their young to join them in a shrubby place safe from predators. The parent birds make chirps of encouragement saying “Jump! Fly! Get out of that nest. Supper is waiting for you down here!”

If you are patient you might witness the first flight of these young birds. Do not be disappointed when the flight is awkward and fluttery, not truly graceful like the birds you are used to seeing. Think of a baby’s first steps. How many times will they fall before they can finally walk?

At only weeks old, fledglings must leave the only home they’ve ever known, coaxed by the calls of their parents. This can take quite some time. Be prepared to sit quietly as the young birds inch their way out of the nest and one-by-one work up the courage to jump. Immediately, they will seek some kind of shelter, whether it be underneath a garbage can, an untrimmed bush, or the trunk of a tree. From there each fledgling will have to rendezvous with its mother and father, where it will learn more about surviving on its own.

It should be noted that if a nest of eggs is laid, and that nest successfully hatches, and those nestlings successfully fledge, those fledglings are still susceptible to numerous dangers in their first year of life. With respect to Eastern Bluebirds, only 50% of fledglings make it to the end of year one. The four chicks you watched make their first flight, two will die. Reasons for the death of these successful fledges can range from predators (a natural cause) to lack of suitable habitat (usually a human cause).

Being both lucky and patient I was able to observe fledgling wrens take flight this year. I sat for an hour and a half watching three wrens leap from their nest and flutter madly toward safety. They took refuge under a trash can and again had to work up the courage to flutter towards mom and dad strategically calling from an overgrown spot with many places to hide.

There was one young bird that was particularly timid. This little fledge was the last to leave the nest and the last to leave the safety from beneath the garbage can. It took its time, hesitant to leave any one spot that was remotely comfortable or seemingly secure. This one made me sit and watch for much longer than I intended, but it finally made it to its parents who were hidden within a thicket of saplings and trumpet creeper growing along a fence.

It was an amazing experience to observe the dynamics between the parents and each fledge. It was all somehow familiar and extraordinary at the same time, to watch birds act like humans or perhaps see human characteristics in the action of birds. (We are the ones who use idioms such as “leave the nest” or “nest together” or “birds of a feather,” it’s not the other way around.)

Nature will persist regardless of your decision to observe. Taking time to sit and look is up to you. And though it was incredible to witness fledges take flight, I am reminded of the stark statistics that challenge the success of each fledgling. A few weeks later I saw one of the fledges head first in a cat’s mouth. I tried to retrieve the fluttering bird, but the cat got the best of me. Nature will be nature in the end and I can concede to that. What I hate to consider though are the unseen ends of fledglings lost due to lack of habitat and the unnatural human touches that inhibit nature’s ability to thrive. These are the birds we should consider carefully when contemplating our relationship to the environments we inhabit.

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