For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Bird Graduation

Original Air Date: June 24, 1997

Baby birds have a low graduation rate—a single failed test is usually fatal.

Duration: 4′10″


On my first day of college, one of the professors told us to look at the person to our right and the one to our left, and said that one of the two would probably not make it to graduation . The people sitting next to me looked pretty nervous-I know I really didn’t want me to be the one who didn’t graduate, so at least in my case maybe the professor’s words became the opposite of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Like us impressionable freshmen trying to keep our academic careers alive, baby birds lie low, little by little figuring out all the things they need to know to survive. And the ones who make it to graduation have a high probability of a successful and long life.

Of course, students are luckier than birds—college bookstores supply them with textbooks, course outlines, and even Cliffs Notes, and if they pay attention to their lectures, they have a good chance of earning an A. Birds learn a lot from their parents as they grow from nestlings to fledglings, but once they’ve left their protection, they must face test after test with nothing to guide them except instinct. When college students break free from their parents, they often do some really stupid things for a while, testing their wings, and may get low grades but usually survive one way or another. If a bird forgets anything its parents taught it, even for a moment, chances are that moment will be its last. If a college student flunks a course, he or she may have to reassess career options and take a new direction in life, but if a baby bird fails a single pop quiz, it can end up paying the death penalty.

The sad truth is that most baby birds never graduate to adulthood- songbirds usually raise four to eight babies every summer in hopes that over their lifetime they’ ll at least replace the two of themselves. When a bird species declines, it’ s because even with a fairly high rate of reproduction, there is a failure rate almost as high. Pop quizzes are never pleasant, and when the examiner is a hawk three times your size with talons millimeters from your heart, Mother Nature tends to bet on the hawk.

Most birds remain at least a little dependent on their parents for weeks after they leave the nest. The parents teach them the skills they’ll need while continuing to feed them, so the fledglings have some time to study up before finals. I’ve watched parent birds from loons to Pileated Woodpeckers patiently teaching their young how to find food in their particular niche, and popping a morsel into the youngster’s mouth when the little one got too hungry to keep studying. Some birds, such as cranes and some jays and crows, stay together through an entire winter, giving the young an even longer time to learn their lessons.

In all species, eventually, the bond between parent and child loosens, and the young must go their own way. To improve their chances, as they fledge and leave their parents, some young birds join study groups, hanging out with others their age and learning tricks of survival together. Blue Jays and American Kestrels are two species that gather in these small groups to learn from one another and find security in numbers as they wend their way south and face the winter.

The tiny hummingbird, weighing barely one fiftieth of a Blue Jay’ s weight, migrates all the way down to Texas and then across the Gulf of Mexico entirely alone. This seems especially incredible when you consider that hummingbirds raise only two babies each season—somehow they manage to hold their own as a species with a very small rate of reproduction and little reliance on one another at any time. Maybe their tiny size makes then less vulnerable to predators, or maybe they’re like those students that ace all their exams without cracking a book But whatever their secret, these beautiful masters of Staying Alive 101 manage to pass all their courses literally with flying colors.