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Back to the Nest Cam, Part 2

Back to the nest camera:

Last week Stan asked me about getting a video camera for his birdhouse. This tiny camera fits inside a birdhouse and allows folks to watch nesting activities on their TV. It’s a cool item for nature lovers (and a must for avian voyeurs). I told Stan that we had sold very few of these cameras, but this spring I tested one in the chickadee box that’s outside my bedroom. Not long after I turned the camera on a chickadee moved in, built a nest and laid six eggs…and we watched all of it from the comfort of our bedroom. When I ended last week’s column I was rushing home because something was going on with the eggs. I left readers wondering if the eggs had hatched or if something had gone wrong. The answer is: Of course the eggs hatched. I wouldn’t make you wait an entire week only to give you bad news. This isn’t American Idol.

By the time I got home three of the six eggs had already hatched and the mother was busily removing eggshells. Upon seeing the newborn chickadees the first thing that hit me was how unbelievably ugly they are. I like birds, but even I have to admit that mammals produce much better looking babies than birds do. (When I say baby birds are ugly, I’m referring to songbirds. Ducklings are adorable.) When the baby chickadees crawled out of their shells they were completely naked, had their eyes shut tight and were as attractive as freshly chewed gum. Not a pretty sight. As soon as the mother had finished ditching the empty eggshells, she returned with bits of food. When she arrived the babies were totally still, utterly exhausted from digging out of their shells. But the instant mom made a faint “peep” sound, their open mouths lifted up in the air, looking like tiny snakeheads responding to a snake charmer. Very cool. Can you imagine being a few minutes old, naked, totally blind and have a creature you can’t even see, stuff insects into your mouth…and you eat it? Talk about having faith. My kids won’t eat anything unless they see it advertised on television first.

After mom fed her hatchlings, she flopped down right on top of them. Don’t forget, there were three eggs yet to hatch and she couldn’t let them cool off. Eventually, things settled down and everyone, including us, fell asleep. It had been a long day. I glanced at the TV a few times during the night, but all was quiet. By morning the remaining eggs had hatched, and now it was dad’s turn to join in the action. Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote a lovely column about baby bird poop? Well, with this live video camera, I got to watch the poop transfer up close and personal. Mom or dad would bring in food and then wait a second for the remains of a previous meal to pop out of the appropriate end, and then off they’d fly with the tidy, white package. I don’t know where they went with it, but I hoped they’d drop it on the neighbor’s yapping dog.

Over the next few weeks we watched as the pieces of chewed gum slowly turned into handsome little chickadees. At first the babies would only open their mouths when an adult gave the appropriate peep call, but as they gained their sight, they’d spring into action the second a parent entered the box. For years I was under the impression that the adults simply stuffed food into the first squawking mouth they saw (or at least that’s what I would do). But this did not appear to be the case. I watched as the adults studied each chick before deciding which one to feed. Researchers have noticed that the brightly colored mouths of some baby birds changed color after bring fed. I’m not sure if this is what was going on with the chickadees, but the adults clearly had a plan and there was no benefit for being the loudest or having the biggest mouth. (Luckily for me, I’m not a chickadee.)

One afternoon my son Casey went outside and walked up to the nest box. As he approached the babies showed no reaction. They continued to mill about in the nest as usual. Then one of adults, sitting in a nearby tree, spotted Casey and gave a warning call. The kids somehow knew this call and froze instantly. It was as if someone had hit the pause button on the TV. I was totally impressed that these babies, only a few days old, already understood chickadee talk…a language that has taken me years to master.

By the end of the second week the young birds started to become restless. Most of the time they worked on their flight skills, flying around inside the box like tiny helicopters. Then one morning the adults stopped bringing the food. They would land on the box, with food, but would not enter. If the kids wanted food, they had to come and get it. One by one the nervous birds looked out of the hole and saw the world for the first time. Then, summoning all of their little birdie courage, each one flew to a nearby tree, where their eager parents were waiting for them. What a show. Within fifteen minutes they were all gone and on their way to a new life. I turned, looked at the TV and everything was empty and quiet. I went to shut it off, but my wife stopped me. She wanted to see if the babies would come back. They didn’t.

I learned a lot from watching the birdhouse camera, Stan, and our family had a fascinating couple of weeks. Keep in mind these cameras aren’t cheap and there is no guarantee if you put a camera in a box the birds will use it. But if you get lucky, you will have a wonderful experience. Just be prepared for some serious empty nest syndrome. It’s been three weeks since the baby birds have flown away and my wife is still staring at the blank TV screen.