Tuesday, May 31, 2016

May No Cowbird Lay an Egg in Your Nest . . .

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars. 

-Walt Whitman, poet (31 May 1819-1892) 

A second bluebird clutch is in the making! So it's come full circle. The first brood has fledged and gone, and the parents are starting over. I never tire of nest watching, but I imagine it gets old reading about it, so after one last post about the Family Blue that stole my affections this year, I promise I'll find some new wonders to ponder.

For almost a month, I've enjoyed watching the gray-backed, speckle-breasted, blue-tailed fledgelings on the gutter, bannister, feeder, and bath—more often than not, in attendance by their father, occasionally by their mother—usually begging to be fed— mostly being refused— but shown by example how to feed themselves. Good parenting. Gradually, I saw less and less of the fledglings as they gained independence.

Then one day, about three weeks after leaving the nest, they flew off into the woods and were gone for good—but not without holding a unique family pow-wow that I was lucky enough to observe. What to make of what I saw, I can only guess.

What I saw:
On May 22nd, the two remaining speckled youngsters flew to the roof of their natal house after not having returned to it since the day of their April 30th fledge, at least not that I had seen. With great pomp, they strutted around on the roof, long enough for me to wonder what they were doing. When one of them crawled down to poke its head into the doorway, both parents swooped in immediately, as if to express displeasure at this development. The mother covered the entrance hole with her body and wings while the father flitted around in the branch that hangs directly in front of the house. The youngsters went back to the top of the roof and stayed there. The father kept up his fluttering while the mother maintained her spread-winged position covering the doorway. After a couple minutes of this unusual behavior, both fledglings took off into the woods. The father stilled, the mother relaxed her posture, and eventually they too flew away together. This happened over a week ago, and I've not seen the young bluebirds since.

What I wonder, in retrospect:
Am I conjecturing too much to think the parents were telling their young they dare not return to the house, and that it was time for them to make their own way in the world?  I'd like to think it was something of a farewell ceremony.

A few days later, during my regular hour of long-sitting, I observed this:
The father flew to the nesting house again and again, entering and leaving and perching on the low hanging branch in front of the doorway.  He sometimes had a piece of grass in his beak when he entered, but not always. I would have thought he was building a new nest for the next brood (we had cleared out the old nest), but I've read that only the female builds the nest while the male watches and wards off competitors. Was he an evolved male bluebird, intending to help his mate with the work? I doubt it. While I was still watching, she came to investigate the box, going in and out a few times without any grass in her beak. Then he returned dangling a long piece of grass from his beak and simply perched on the branch, still watching her go in and out. Eventually she flew away. He dropped the grass and flew after her.

What I think it meant:
I'm no ornithologist, but I'm pretty sure I was witness to that moment of agreement between the two that the place he had selected met with her approval. He had laid a few blades of grass to prove his worthiness, lured her to inspect his handiwork, then hung around with that long floppy grass dangling from his beak as if to make sure she knew he was the guy. Because once she gave her consent and flew off, he dropped that grass like a hot potato to follow her. It was clear he had things on his mind that had naught to do with anymore nest construction. This I think because for the next few days I heard his plaintive mating call. Chew-chu-chu-chu, all day long.

Then on May 28th, she alone began bringing grass to the house at a rapid-fire pace, and he went silent. For two days he sat on the low branch watching her work. I did see him go after a passing cardinal, a blue jay, and several squirrels with his famous flapping and clicking, but I don't think any of them were interested in his nesting box. Mostly his behavior appeared to be justification for his idleness, or displays of bravery to impress his hard working mate. Still, let me not be too hard on him, because I know from last nestwatch, he'll make up for it when he begins to feed the nestlings, and later protects and trains the fledglings to independence. It actually appears to be a fairly equitable division of labor. Efficient and logical, as are most things in nature.

Quiet for the time being
But after those two days of high energy nest building on her part and protecting on his, we've now had relative quiet for the last two days. They both go in and out of the house occasionally, but mostly she's nowhere to be seen and he's hanging around the nearby branches. Looks like waiting to me—for egg laying time. I did see him feed her today on a branch, after which she flew off and he went back to his post. I don't think she has laid any eggs yet, but time will tell.

One thing I'm keeping my eye on.  I've heard a cowbird in the vicinity and saw one perched on a favorite branch of Mr. Blue's today. Here's hoping no cowbird eggs get deposited in the bluebird nest!  I'll keep watching and counting days, as in last nestwatch, but I plan, assuming no cowbird mishap, to go back to blogging about other surprises in the yard until it's time for the next bluebird fledge. I intend not to miss it this time.  dkm

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Amendment to Last Bluebird Post

My hypothesis about a one-egg clutch has been proven false. Aren't they cute? When one of the parents comes near, they all open their mouths and crane their necks. But the parents don't feed them. Instead they hop to the feeder and show them what to do. I hope they're also learning to get worms from the earth. I don't think sunflower seeds are supposed to be their primary diet. dkm

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Bluebird Timeline

They've fledged!  My best estimate of the overall timeline for this year's bluebird nestwatch, calculated by daily observations and counting backward from day of fledge:

Day 1             Feb 23                  Mating behavior observed
Days 1-37      Feb 24-Mar 31     House exploration and nest building
                                                      (37 days)  
Day 37           Mar 31                  Egg laying day
                                                      (perhaps across several days?)
Days 38-51    Apr 1-14               She sits on egg(s) / he protects nest
                                                      (14 days)
Day 51           Apr 14                  Egg hatching day
Days 52-67    Apr 15-30             Both parents feed nestling(s)
                                                       (16 days)
Day 67           Apr 30                   Fledge day

The moment of fledge likely came sometime on Saturday, April 30th. As expected, I missed it due to traveling, but family at home reported lots of parental nest tending on Friday, that they made no observations on Saturday, that the nest box was totally abandoned and silent on Sunday morning (May 1st).

Having returned from trip on May 9th, I've since caught daily backyard glimpses of one speckled fledgling, always closely attended by a parent, often being fed by said parent on the banister near feeder. Appears to be just one newbie. Don't know if only one fledged or if others were snatched by hawk or owl (I hear a barred owl every evening). I'm going with the theory of a one-egg clutch from the beginning, since the nestling cries were never very loud. I had actually worried that the clutch wasn't healthy, because they didn't make the racket I remember from years past.

All in all, even if only one fledged, it was a successful nesting venture. Whatever happened, the one looks hale and hearty.  Not sure yet if male or female. Will watch as new breast and back feathers grow in. Already it comes to the feeder with its daddy.

See its still speckled breast as it peeks around the feeder.

Its new blue tail

Its fluffy innocence

Good news: Today I heard the male bluebird's mating call start up again. Chewwww-chu-chu.
Day 1 of next brood? No trips planned for the next 67 days. Yay.

I may have missed the bluebird fledge, but happiness of all happinesses, Moe and I were witness to a significant fledge in our own family---that of our firstborn daughter's PhD graduation and hooding ceremony at Michigan State University on May 6th. A glorious day from start to finish, full of breathtaking moments. But none more tender than watching her wait on stage, tall and proud and confident, while her advising professor spoke with eloquence about her considerable accomplishment. Our hearts swelled, our tears flowed.

 I wonder if the bluebirds felt the same pride on the day they watched their young take flight. dkm