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Flycatchers Continued

Great Crested Flycatchers, continued:

Last week I wrote about a pair of flycatchers that were nesting in one of my birdhouses. What makes this nest so special is that it’s wired for sight and sound. I had placed a tiny video camera in the box and this June a family moved in. I was now spending my day watching the action on a flat screen in my living room. There would be no more regular TV for a while. Sorry, Pat and Vanna, you’ve been bumped.

When I envision an incubating bird, I picture it sitting on the eggs all day long, with only brief breaks to find food. This is not the case with Great Crested Flycatchers, not even close. The female does all of the nest building and all of the incubating, but surprisingly, she only sits on her eggs for short periods. Typically, she will incubate for about twenty minutes and then head out to look for a snack. I thought the male might help out by feeding her while she sat on the nest, but it never happened. In fact, as far as I could tell, he was a total slacker. He would only drift by the box once or twice a day, and even then he didn’t seem to know why.

After sunset, the mother stopped all the roving and moved into the box for the night, but she didn’t sleep. In order to warm the eggs evenly and to ensure the embryos were properly nourished, the female has to occasionally rotate them. But this mother was obsessed with rotation. Every twenty-seven seconds (really) she would move her eggs around, and it happened all night long. I purposely got up at 3:00 AM just to see what was going on and there she was, eyes wide open, rotating away. Only sporadically would I see her eyes start to droop, like a weary commuter on the train (or my father in church), but seconds later she was up, spinning those eggs once again. I was convinced that if these eggs ever actually hatched, the first thing the chicks would need would be a dose of Dramamine, or two.

The book says that it takes two weeks of incubating for the flycatchers’ eggs to hatch, but this mother was such a spaz I doubted it would ever happen. But exactly two weeks later, while I was closing up shop, I got a text message telling me, “The babies are hatching!!” I wrote back saying I was on my way and someone should start boiling water. (I watch too many old movies.) When I arrived everyone was gathered around the TV watching the first tiny bird crawl out of its shell. It was so exciting. And the best part of all, the hatching took place on my birthday. This meant the nestlings would be my “grand-birds,” or whatever it is those creepy bumper stickers say.

The manner in which Mrs. Flycatcher rotated her eggs was a bit surprising, but the way she treated her first chick was shocking. At this point, only one egg had hatched. She still had to incubate the other four eggs and the new chick seemed to bother her. She kept grabbing the little peeping bird with her beak and flipping it out of the way. Like idiots, we screamed at the TV for her to stop, but I guess she knew what she was doing. By the next morning three more eggs had hatched and all the babies were fine. But there was still one egg left to go and it was getting late. Was this last egg going to be a dud? Did all that spinning scramble it? Finally, the female decided enough was enough. She turned to the last egg and gave it a whack with her beak. We cringed, but the egg opened up just fine and out crawled the last chick…and it was not scrambled one bit. Good job, mom.

I was told that baby flycatchers were noisy, but that is an understatement. From the instant they hatched, they yapped constantly: “peep, peep, peep, peep,” all day and all night. It never stopped, ever. Once again, I got up at 3:00 AM and yup, I could still hear them. And what an unsightly bunch of babies they were. They were totally blind, with huge heads and bigger mouths, looking like defective Muppets. They were also naked, and only covered in random patches of hair (feathers). They reminded me of old men in a gym locker room. These were truly “ugly ducklings.”

When it was warm outside, it was easy for the mother to find food. But when the weather turned cooler, she had to somehow find time to brood her chicks (keep them warm), while also hunting for food. One day it was unseasonably cold and I could tell she was stressed. Her hungry babies were yelling louder than ever, but it was too cold to leave them uncovered. What to do? Suddenly, there was a thump on the roof of the box. It was dad and he had a beak-full of bugs. Well, what do you know! He had finally stopped slacking off and decided to chip in, and it was just in time. Good job, dad.

From this point on, both parents brought food for the baby flycatchers, although the parenting skills of the two adults were totally different. Mother would hop into the box, feed a chick or two and then settle in to warm them for a while. Dad only stuck his head in the hole, gave food to the first beak he saw, and flew away before they gave him more stuff to do. And speaking of “stuff,” that’s exactly what the adults have to deal with. For the sake of nest sanitation, the baby birds’ poop has to be removed constantly. After feeding a chick, the parent will tap it on the bum and out will pop a tiny package of poop. Eventually, these fecal sacs will be carried away, but at this stage the parents simply ingested them on the spot. (Talk about dedicated parents.) On that tasty note, I’ll stop and will wrap this story up next week.