A Cassin's vireo in a nest at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge near Dallas, Oregon (Courtesy/Tim Johnson)
This is the season when many of our local birds are nesting and raising their young. Few species nest in winter, mostly large hunters like great horned owls and red-tailed hawks. Right now is a good time for most birds because food is plentiful, the weather mild, the days long.
Although birds share a few basic characteristics (wings, feathers, two feet, a beak) they are highly variable. That becomes obvious during nesting season. Many parental birds are secretive, some not. A robin will hide its nest in thick foliage. An osprey or Canada goose will nest in the wide open far above the ground. Killdeer, juncos and meadowlarks will nest on the ground. Hermit warblers and marbled murrelets will nest over a hundred feet up in mature conifers. Cliff swallows will live up to their name.
Each species of baby bird has its own set of physical traits and abilities. Some baby birds are born ready to go, with feathers and the ability to see and run. If you are born on the ground like a killdeer you will be running within hours of leaving your egg. If you’re a duckling you will be out of the nest and onto the water as fast as possible. You will feed yourself from day one. Neither killdeer nor mallard young will hang around the old nest.
No birds can fly at birth, but for many being able to run or swim is enough.
If you are born in a nesting hole excavated by your parents, like our many woodpeckers, you will be a helpless fuzzball, nearly blind like a newborn kitten. Your parents will feed you as you slowly grow and develop the skills you’ll need outside. Like most helpless nestlings you will have some bright, pale line on the edge of your beak so the adult birds can find you in the dark and poke the food into your open mouth.
A few birds like bushtits, dippers, and Bullock’s orioles build enclosed nests and their young are also kept in the dark. From tiny birds to raptors, the range of time between hatching and leaving the nest can range from ten days to several weeks.
A large portion of the birds nesting in our area build a new open cup nest for every brood, like robins do. Some of our smaller birds will nest more than once in a year of food is plentiful. A few large ones like osprey and bald eagles and great blue herons will often refurbish and continue to use a nest for years, or even decades.
Harry Fuller is an Oregon birder and natural history author of "Freeway Birding." He is a member of the Salem Audubon Society. Contact him at [email protected] or http://www.towhee.net/. His "Some Fascinating Things About Birds" column will be appearing regularly in Salem Reporter.
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