In early May, I discovered a Spotted towhee nest with four speckled tan and gray eggs. It was perfectly camouflaged, constructed of dried leaves and plant stems and finished with a smooth inner layer. This was the first nest I’d observed in my yard in my entire life. I was thrilled but determined to resist bothering the mother bird as she incubated her eggs. A week a later, I glimpsed a pinkish, grayish, fluffy-ish blob in the nest. At least one of the eggs had hatched.
While the nestlings matured, my family flew 3,000 miles to attend our eldest’s college graduation. The trip was bittersweet. We celebrated his accomplishments while he anxiously awaited word on a job prospect. Just as we prepared to say our final farewells and return home, iRobot offered him a job. I was equally proud and relieved. Back home, the first thing I did was check the nest; The baby birds had fledged. This felt like a sign. And I cried. Over the next few weeks, I observed a juvenile towhee hanging the yard and foraging for seeds on the ground below our feeder. I told myself that fledging far afield was better than nearby. But I didn’t believe it. And I longed for my bird.
A month after discovering the towhee nest, I realized that a pair of Chestnut-backed chickadees had taken up residence in a wooden bird feeder attached to a fence post along the back of our property near the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. What were the odds (I thought) of two bird families placing their nests in our yard for the first time ever in the very same year? I didn’t care. I was grateful for the distraction. I spied on the parents as they took turns entering and exiting the opening, sometimes perching on the tiny wooden peg.
In mid-June, beginning early in the morning, the nestlings treated me to miraculous sights: their maiden voyages.
The tiny, yellow-beaked chickadee, more fuzzy than feathery, placed their tiny toes along the edge of the birdhouse opening, leaped, and landed…along the rail of the fence on which their former home was attached, less than a foot away. While considering the best next course of action, a second bird took over its sibling’s spot, looked down in shock. They had never seen the other at such a distance. The first bird traveled fifty feet directly away from the birdhouse opening on its maiden flight, which was towards our house. They landed on the wood deck, tight against the metal track of the sliding glass door, two feet from where I sat. My first thought “Go back!” was telling, but the bird had bigger plans. They flew back past their former home and landed on an alder branch, calling “ssspsss,” “ssspsss.” A parent promptly arrived to accompany their progeny out into the world.
How did the bird know it was time to fly?
The author of How Do Young Birds Know When To Leave The Nest? explains that “The age when young birds leave their nest is the evolutionary compromise between parents, who want their chicks to leave as early as possible, and offspring, who want to leave as late as possible” and “Predictably, predation [the pursuit, capture, and killing of animals for food] plays an important role in driving the evolution of optimal fledging times for birds. Songbirds that experience higher daily rates of predation — species…that build open-cup nests on the ground or in low bushes — have evolved younger ages of fledging to deal with this pressure. In contrast, this pressure to fledge early is relaxed for birds that enjoy a relatively low risk of nest predation — as seen in cavity-nesting birds, like chickadees and bluebirds.” According to the The Cornell Lab, Spotted towhees, which build open cup nests near the ground, have a nestling period of ten to twelve days while Chestnut-backed chickadees, which build cavity nests, fledge at the age of twelve to eighteen days.
Fledging is a very dangerous time in the life of a bird. One study showed that “up to 20% [of fledglings] do not survive the first day outside the nest and that almost half do not survive the first 3 weeks after fledging.” As for the time of departure from the nest, Research shows that it is related to survival. In a study of “1582…[birds]…from 230 nests…nestlings primarily fledged early in the day (84% fledged before midday). It’s thought “that fledging earlier in the day may improve survival chances, because it gives fledglings more time to reach a safe location before dusk.”
When I returned several hours later, one of the two remaining birds perched along the opening. Three and a half hours after the first, nestling number two made their first flight (more like a restrained fall): six feet down to the ground, tight up to the fence. Their next flight was also into the alders. The third bird spent half an hour at the opening, looking around, blinking, and considering their options before taking off. After all the waiting, the last one to fledge was the first to fly UP. They landed on our roof, thirty feet from the birdhouse and twelve feet above the ground.
In the weeks since the nestlings fledged, I’ve kept an eye (and ear) out for them. I know that the world is a dangerous place, both for birds and humans, but I don’t spend too much time thinking about it. Instead, I celebrate their bravery and perseverance, wish them the best, and look forward to future encounters with them. And sometimes I think about my own fledgling. And I cry.