For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Birds, Part I (Original)

Original Air Date: June 18, 1986

Baby birds are everywhere! Why are ducklings so different from baby robins? (3:30) Date confirmed.

Duration: 3′28″


Aargh–For the birds! For the birds!

It’s that time of the year again–baby birds are everywhere. Mallard ducklings bob like corks as they follow their mothers–look for them along the Western Waterfront Trail, at the Duluth Zoo, Park Point, Chester Bowl, Lester Park–just about anywhere there’s water. Killdeer chicks run about on tiny stilts–they’re tiny, fluffy versions of their parents, only with one breast stripe instead of two. They hide under their mother when frightened–but if you come too close, the mother will suddenly keel over like she’s dying, moan pitifully, and drag her wing as she carefully leads you away. But don’t worry–as soon as you are a safe distance from her babies, she’ll fly off, good as new.

(Recording of a Killdeer)

In the Port Terminal, hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls, known to most people as seagulls, are breeding. It’s easy to find their nests, made of grasses and sticks, on the ground. Some of the nests have eggs right now, and in some the chicks have already hatched. The eggs are brown and mottled, about the size of chicken eggs. The babies are covered with fluffy down feathers, but, unlike Killdeers or ducklings, stay inside the nest. They grow cold very quickly when left alone by their parents. And Herring Gulls think nothing of snatching Ring-billed Gull chicks for dinner. So if you want to look at or photograph a gull nest, be reasonably quick about it. Also, if you approach the nesting colony, you’d be wise to wear a rainhat or cover your head with newspaper.

There are two kinds of baby birds. Chicks and ducklings and baby Killdeers are covered with thick down from the time they hatch. As soon as they dry off, they can run around. They don’t beg–the parents lead them to food, but the babies have to peck for it themselves. These are called precocial birds. They don’t necessarily recognize their own species–the first moving object they see after they hatch is what they follow. In the wild, this is usually the mother. But in captivity, ducklings, chicks, and turkeys often see a human or a dog or cat first– they not only will follow the wrong species around, but also, when they reach maturity, they will try to mate with the wrong thing. This phenomenon is called imprinting.

Songbirds, herons, hawks, owls, gulls, and some other species don’t imprint. They’re helpless at hatching–think of a baby robin. The parent must stuff food into each baby’s mouth because a baby robin doesn’t have the foggiest notion how to eat by itself. It only knows how to do two things–when something moves or jars its nest, it cranes its neck up and pops its mouth open. Then, as soon as it’s fed, it backs off to the edge of the nest and goes to the bathroom. Birds like this are called altricial–for their first couple of weeks, they are just half-naked food processing machines.

Next time, I’ll tell you what to do if you find a baby bird that needs help. This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”