For the Birds Radio Program: Baby-Proofing the World of Birds
When I was pregnant with my first baby, I did an inventory of our house, searching for every possible danger. I got baby-proof locks for the kitchen cabinets. I put childproof covers on every electric outlet. A baby learning to stand could pull a tablecloth and dishes down on his head, so I packed away my tablecloths. Anything that could theoretically hurt this baby, months from being born and many more months from crawling or walking, had to go.
Bird territories may not have electric outlets or heavy dishes, but they’re fraught with danger for tiny chicks. And like us human parents, bird parents become paranoid, focused on eliminating every danger they can anticipate, regardless of the probabilities of any one of them actually harming their chicks. This time of year, it’s almost impossible to see a crow flying over a marsh without watching at least one Red-winged Blackbird divebombing it. And it’s difficult to find a Red-tailed Hawk in flight without at least one crow divebombing it. We tend to smile at the sight of these spunky parent birds chasing a bird many times their size, not necessarily appreciating that crows and hawks are far more likely to eat nestlings than toddlers are to stick a fork in a socket. The point is that we parents, avian or human, do what we can to protect our little ones.
Bald Eagles take young Osprey, herons, and other eggs and nestlings in large nests, but would have a very hard time managing hummingbird eggs, which are way too tiny. But hummingbirds attack eagles, not that the huge predators seem to even notice the little twerps. Eastern Kingbirds chase everything off their territories, too—even species that are almost ridiculously unlikely to take their young. In May, I visited the Powell Marsh in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, and watched a Red-winged Blackbird aggressively attacking a Sandhill Crane. I couldn’t help but think how unlikely it was that a Sandhill Crane would ever eat a nestling blackbird. But then I read the Sandhill Crane entry in the Birds of North America Online, which said that cranes do, indeed, eat nestlings when they chance upon them. Red-winged Blackbird chicks would be rich in both protein and calcium, the two things nesting birds of all species need during egg formation, so apparently that blackbird’s paranoia was completely justified.
This year all the Canada Goose nests we knew about in Sapsucker Woods at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology were destroyed and the eggs eaten in just a couple of nights, by a fox, mink, raccoon, or other critter. The eggs were close to hatching, too late for most of the bereft pairs to renest. It’s been sad watching the birds walking about, taking an unanticipated break from responsibilities right when their hormones have them primed and yearning for the duties of parenthood—empty-nest syndrome at its worst. Geese hiss and shake their wings menacingly at every possible danger, making even large adult humans back off, but some predators are just too much for them. Those predators, of course, need diets high in protein and calcium to produce milk to feed their own babies.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and most babies hatched won’t make it through the summer. But parents do what they can in the face of every hardship, and the miracle is that next year pretty much the same number of birds will return and try to nest and bravely and optimistically try to protect their babies from every danger. The world can’t ever truly be baby-proofed, but we parents would be diminished if we didn’t at least try.