Great Crested Flycatchers, finale:
For the past few weeks I have been writing about a nest box filled with baby flycatchers. The box also has a video camera in it, which allows us to watch the birds both day and night. I’m sorry for dragging this topic out for so long, but it’s just so interesting (to me, at least). Besides, these summer columns can’t all be about the formula for hummingbird food. Right? (It’s four parts water to one part sugar.)
A few years ago this same camera was in a chickadee box and when Mrs. Chickadee arrived with dinner, she would calmly pick out the chick that needed to be fed first (she somehow knew). She fed it and that was that. The chicks that didn’t receive anything would simply wait for the next meal to arrive. Flycatcher babies have no such patience. Anytime an adult showed up with food, it was total mayhem. There was lots of screaming, clawing and pushing, like a rugby scrum or shoppers on Black Friday.
Based on the name alone, you would think flycatchers fed their babies flies. It makes sense to me. Well, the adults brought them flies all right, but they weren’t fruit flies or even houseflies. Instead, these babies were fed big scary dragonflies. For the first two days, the mother fed them insects that we couldn’t identify, but on day three, in came the dragonflies, and it was a hard thing to watch.
I’ve never understood why baby birds are born blind, but now I do. No tiny hatchling would ever ask to be fed if it could actually see what was heading its way. As the sightless bird opened its mouth, the female would jam in a huge dragonfly, wings, legs and all. Once again, like idiots, we screamed at the TV, convinced the baby was going to choke. As the mother stuffed the huge insect into a baby’s gape, it (the bug) got stuck halfway down. I was convinced this was going to end badly. But once again, mom knew what she was doing. While the baby struggled to swallow, the female methodically used her beak to hammer the rest of the giant insect down the kid’s throat. It looked like a Minuteman loading a musket or my wife packing her suitcase for a trip. After much effort (and help from mom’s beak), the dragonfly was completely swallowed and we were all relieved…and disgusted.
One afternoon I was home all alone, when there was a knock on the front door. Two questions immediately came to mind: Who could it be, and how did the person get past my security guards? It was my neighbor, who wanted to borrow (and this is true) a stick of butter. (What is this, a sitcom?) As I handed him the butter, I could see a puzzled look on his face. He then asked, “What the heck are you watching on TV?” I replied, “A nest of baby flycatchers. What else would I be watching?” He thanked me for the butter and walked away shaking his head. (That will teach him to knock on my door.)
For the first five nights, the mother kept her nestlings warm by sleeping in the box with them. But by night six she had had enough of the constant peeping and rented a nearby Airbnb, and the kids weren’t happy about it. Who would keep them warm? During the day they were fighting each other for food, but when night arrived they suddenly became BFFs and cuddled into a tight ball for warmth. Then, when morning came, they were back to squabbling with each other again…just like most siblings.
Speaking of family clashes, earlier in this saga I mentioned that my wife had mistakenly cut the wire to the camera. Well, it happened again. This time I discovered the real culprit. Some creature had chewed the wire and it wasn’t my wife’s fault after all. (Oops! I guess I owe her an apology…nah.)
The growth of baby songbirds is truly mind-boggling. When they first crawl out of the eggs they are blind and naked, and look more like chewed gum than actual birds. But a mere twelve days later, they were covered in feathers, flapping around inside of the box and chowing down whatever their parents brought them, which occasionally included a honeysuckle berry or two. (Even flycatchers understand the benefits of a balanced diet.) At this stage, the baby birds spend their time preening and getting their feathers in shape for their first flights. When they weren’t preening, they were sitting with their faces looking out of the entrance hole. They seemed to be wondering what was going to happen next…and so was I.
According to my calendar, today (day fourteen) should be moving day for our flycatcher family. I woke early because I wanted to see them go. But it was raining out, which made me a bit groggy and slow getting dressed. When I finally made it downstairs and turned on the TV, the nest was empty. I was too late. They had all flown off without me. Nuts! Stupid rain.
That evening, I was finishing this column and still bummed about missing the first flight, when I heard “wheep” coming from the backyard. I ran out and followed the sound. There, sitting in a bush about a foot off the ground, was one of the baby flycatchers. I hadn’t totally missed them all. A moment later, I felt something zip above my head. It was mom. She was yelling and giving me a look that said she didn’t want me around. (I get that look a lot.) I went back inside, smiling, but a bit sad. The show was over for this year, but I was already looking forward to future breeding seasons. When next spring arrives I’ll be sure to have the nest box ready, the tiny camera ready, and plenty of butter on hand, just in case my neighbor shows up again.