Bird Watcher's General Store

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Good News Stories

Two good news topics:

Due to the uncertainty caused by a mysterious avian illness, backyard bird watching has taken a hit recently. So, I’ve decided to change things up a bit this week and write two different positive stories. The first one is about everyone’s favorite appliance, television.

In the past I’ve talked about placing a tiny video camera in one of my nest boxes. The camera allows me to watch, on my very own TV, the entire nesting process. I see everything from nest building, to egg laying, to hatching, to the parents feeding their babies and finally, seeing the fledglings fly out for the very first time. It’s one of those rare instances when there’s actually something good to watch on television. Every now and then, however, keeping a close eye on nature isn’t all that wonderful. I’ll spare you the nasty details, except to say that most wild birds have tiny mites on them. This isn’t an issue for the adults, since they are able to remove any mites while preening. It’s a different story for the babies though, and occasionally too many mites can be bad. Such was case last year when I lost an entire nest of baby Great-crested Flycatchers to mites. I was determined not to let that happen to this year’s flycatcher family, so I reached out for help…and help arrived.

I related my ugly mite tale to Stephanie Ellis, the executive director of Wild Care. Stephanie and her amazing and unbelievably hardworking Wild Care staff have long been a beacon of hope for the infirmed critters on the Lower Cape. Stephanie told me that they routinely “dusted” baby birds for mites whenever one is brought to them. She also said she’d be happy to come to my house and do the same to my little flycatchers. Great! Although dusting anything congers up imagines of those poor refugees being deloused in the 1940s. Fortunately, that’s not how Stephanie works.

You might think someone who was about to battle mites would arrive wearing a HAZMAT suit or at least be in yard-work clothes, but not Stephanie. She casually stepped out of her car dressed as if she was on her way to a business meeting. I took the birdhouse down from the post and slowly opened it. We looked inside and were shocked to find no baby birds. What? Undeterred, Stephanie dug her hand deeper into the box and pulled out two baby flycatchers. Apparently, the birds tried to hide because they didn’t want to be picked up by the lady with the rubber gloves. Go figure.

Stephanie placed each tiny bird on a paper towel and with her finger she methodically began to spread mite powder over the wings, body and head of each bird. Surprisingly, the babies didn’t like anything about this disruptive procedure (talk about ungrateful), and began chirping in protest. Almost immediately a shadow appeared on the ground next to us. Without even looking up, Stephanie said, “That must be mom.” An instant later, from a branch a few feet above my head, I heard a loud “wheeep,” the signature call of an adult Great-crested Flycatcher. A second after that there was another wheeep and this time it was dad, and he wasn’t happy. We quickly put their now treated kids back into the nest box, placed it on the post and went inside to watch the big family reunion. (Don’t forget, this is the box with the tiny camera inside.) I turned on the TV and waited for the reunion, and waited, and waited, and waited and…uh oh.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes went by and still neither adult went into the birdhouse. Occasionally, one flew towards the hole but would ultimately veer off. Thinking something must be wrong, I ran outside and saw that a pine needle had fallen in front of the entrance hole. I thought, a pine needle? How wimpy are these birds when they’re afraid of a single pine needle? I removed the big bad pine needle and went back in. After a few more minutes of waiting, Stephanie mentioned that she had a life to get back to (my words, not hers) and headed off. (Maybe she really did have a business meeting to go to after all.) I promised her I would keep an eye on the situation and report any updates. Twenty minutes later I received a text message from her saying that she was having a bad case of “flycatcher anxiety” and needed to know if things had gotten better. I happily reported that both parents were back to work feeding their brood and that the babies were now blissfully mite-free. Done and done.

Stephanie’s TLC, plus the mite dust, had done the trick and she deserves full credit. However, I want the record to show that while her skill at handling the baby birds was important, I was the one who ultimately stepped up and bravely removed the pine needle. Let’s not forget about that.

This whole baby bird thing amazes me. On the day of the dusting, the little flycatchers were just over a week old, could barely hold their heads up and were covered in only a smattering of feathers. They looked less like birds and more like something you might pull out of a dryer lint basket. Yet, a mere five days later, those tiny birds had grown enough to be out of the box and flying around the neighborhood. I was happy my flycatcher family had a successful breeding season, but I also was a little sad. I wasn’t sad because the birds had flown, but because I knew there wouldn’t be anything good to watch on TV until they return next year. (Get over yourself, Netflix.)

I know I promised a second good news story this week, but I only have enough room for one more sentence and this next story is slightly longer than that. Stay tuned.