COLUMN: It’s family season for birds around Salem

This is the season when North America sees a large number of new birds. Nestlings, fledglings, juvies learning the biz. 

“Family” has many meanings across avian cultures. Some Arctic-breeding shorebirds separate parents and young quickly. In early summer dunlin, sandpipers, sanderlings and other shorebirds that pass the Oregon and California coast and some inland venues are all adults. In these small shorebirds the young stay north for more weeks, dominating the insect population with no adult competition. That prey is visible for twenty-hour days in mid-summer. 

When you see a migrant shorebird in July or August (I’ve seen some late June, even), know they left the young‘uns behind. Later the first-year birds will migrate in their own flock. 

The great gray owls have a very different take on reducing adult competition. The mother is the egg-layer, brooder and guardian for the young owls. Father bird is the hunter. When the young can fly well enough to follow him, mother departs for a meadow where she does not compete with her offspring (say, in early August). The father then feeds, trains, guards and generally has full single parenthood until the young can catch their own meals. This can last until October.

A mother great gray owl with nestling in a nest platform in Jackson County, Oregon. (Courtesy/Peter Thiemann)

Learning and genetic instinct are always a puzzle for people who observe and try to understand. As far as we know the speedy prairie falcon parents feed the young as long as needed. Training? Like a cat chasing a mouse, the young ones go after anything that moves. With their speed they catch up and eventually learn to catch vole, snake, small birds, ground squirrel.  They begin to learn the ease and flavor and any problems with each prey target.

At the far end of the spectrum: sandhill cranes. The adults mate generally for life. They lay two eggs annually (if there’s food enough) but normally raise only one. The two parents are constantly nearby. In migrant populations the young cranes go south and hopefully return north with the parents. Only in the following spring are the yearlings pushed off into flocks of their age-mates.

Around Salem now I see young mallards with their mother, young Canada geese with both parents  Family groups of small birds are all around us now.  By the time small birds are out of the nest the young are usually as big as the parents.  Often the tail feathers are still too short. Bushtits. House finches.  Chickadees. Starlings. Crows. The parents of these species show the kids around the neighborhood, introduce them to the feeders, the dangerous house cats, places to find natural food.

By fall many birds are migrating, or in bigger flocks, or lone individuals (like great blue herons or flickers). We suspect flocking, or not, is indicated by genetic signals.

If you want to see sandhill crane families, visit Sauvie Island from late October through mid-March. Three is the usual family size in winter.

For information about upcoming Salem Audubon programs and activities, see, or Salem Audubon’s Facebook page.

Harry Fuller is an Oregon birder and natural history author of “Freeway Birding” and the newly-published “Birding Harney County.” He is a member of the Salem Audubon Society. Contact him at [email protected] or His “Some Fascinating Things About Birds” column appears regularly in Salem Reporter.

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Harry Fuller is an Oregon birder and natural history author of three books: “Freeway Birding,” "Great Gray Owls of California, Oregon and Washington," and "San Francisco's Natural History--Sand Dunes to Streetcars." He leads birding trips for the Malheur Field Station. He is a member of the Salem Audubon Society, and leads bird trips locally. Harry has just published a new book, BIrding Harney County.