Monday, May 24, 2010

Drama Under the Deck

For the past several weeks, I've enjoyed watching a robin's nest built on one of the rafters under my backyard deck. From a lower-level window, I could see the female robin sitting on her eggs. The female had done most of the work, selecting the nest site and building the nest before laying her eggs and sitting on them. Her mate stood guard when she went off to feed and occasionally sat on the eggs himself. After the eggs hatched, I soon could see four open mouths just barely peeking above the edge of the nest.

E. and I were away for five days and by the time we returned, the tiny hatchlings had begun to look like their parents. They had feathers and recognizable robin beaks and they were so big they filled up the nest. For the past few days, I've been waiting for them to leave. By yesterday, it appeared that one had, since I could only count three chicks still remaining. This afternoon, I decided to take a few photos so I'd have a remembrance of their brief sojourn under my deck.

I didn't venture too close to the nest and I moved slowly and quietly. I took a couple of shots, uneventfully. The chicks appeared calm, not in the least agitated by my presence. They should have been somewhat accustomed to human beings by then. E. and I had walked, grilled, and sat on the deck just above the nest, and I've approached quite near the nest previously without any apparent problem. But today, after the click of my iPhone as I took the last of several photos, two of the chicks flew out of the nest.

It was clearly their first flight. They didn't go far. Both landed near the deck and began hopping about. One of the two hopped around the corner and out of sight. The second lingered on the gravel under the deck. I hoped, futilely as it turned out, that it might fly back to the nest, where the third chick still sat. But such a flight would have been tricky. The chick would have had to navigate between the rafter and the underside of the deck. My heart sank. At the very least, I'd been responsible for two of the three robins departing the nest slightly prematurely. Judging by their size and markings, they had looked ready to leave, but if I hadn't interfered with my camera, how much longer might they have lingered?

Filled with remorse, I went inside and took a post at the window, where I waited to see what would happen. The chick who had remained under the deck flew up to a nearby rock outcropping and perched there. The mother soon appeared, worm in mouth, and fed the hungry chick. While relieved that the parents would not abandon their babies, I felt worried that the chick wouldn't be able to fend for itself.

A short while later the chick flew from the rock onto the deck stairs. It perched between two rails. To my amazement and delight, it was soon joined by the second chick, who had apparently discovered the first chick's whereabouts. Both parents hovered nearby on the grass, searching for worms but ever on the alert. I thought the two chicks might settle in for the night at this location, given its relative security. The parents would be able to protect them and also protect the one chick still remaining in the nest. But after several feeding cycles, one of the chicks followed its parent, flying nicely from the deck onto the grass, where it proceeded to hop around just like an adult robin.

The other chick seemed smaller and more timid. It took flight in two stages, first from the deck back to its earlier perch atop the rock. As I watched, one of its parents fed it a worm. But the parent did it in a teasing way, only actually feeding the chick the third time the chick opened its mouth. Robins do this to motivate their offspring to leave the nest and search for their own food. Sure enough, the chick followed its parent as it flew from the rock to the grass and began hopping around, as if it were searching for a worm. I felt encouraged — maybe the chicks were old enough to make it on their own.

A few moments later, E. called me excitedly to report that the third chick had also left the nest. This thrilled me and gave me hope that the other two chicks had, indeed, been ready to leave. I soon saw the third chick on the deck, the same vantage point from which its siblings had surveyed their brave new backyard world.

Birds who have recently acquired their flight feathers and can survive outside the nest are known as fledglings. Normally, robin fledglings stay close to their parents for the first two weeks and become capable of sustained flight only by the end of that period. The three chicks who left the nest today look like the pictures I've seen of fledglings (see photo at right). All three can fly, although not for a sustained period. During the next couple of weeks, they have a lot to learn. Here's hoping they make it.

Photo of fledgling courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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