For the Birds Radio Program: Mayday! Tragedy Strikes Nests

Original Air Date: May 1, 2009 Rerun Dates: May 2, 2011

A chipmunk ate all the eggs in the nest outside Laura’s apartment window, and a mink ate all the Canada Goose eggs in Sapsucker Woods this spring.

Duration: 4′47″


Mayday! As I watch floods of migrants returning to Ithaca, setting up new territories as they deal with finding all the nooks and crannies in their new place, chasing off intruders, finding the best places to get food, figuring out security issues, and getting to know their new neighbors, I think about how appropriate it is that I’ve moved into a new apartment this week, and am making some of the same adjustments they are. Of course, we humans have it easier. Even in an idyllic little apartment complex tucked into a woodland area, there are huge threats facing individual birds that we people just don’t have to face.

I found my first nest here on Wednesday morning—a robin’s nest with the female incubating just three or four feet from my bedroom window. While I was looking at it for the first time, I noticed some shaking in the branches just below, and watched an Eastern Chipmunk work its way up. The incubating robin sat tight, not moving a muscle—I didn’t even see her blink until the chipmunk was barely an inch from her face. Then the robin silently hopped out and flew away, and the chipmunk hopped into the nest and ate the eggs. I wondered why the robin didn’t hold her ground and fight, but chipmunks outweigh robins and are pretty persistent. She probably figured, logically or instinctively, that if the rodent didn’t take the eggs right now, it would come back, so she might as well cut her losses and start anew somewhere else. I was bummed out, as I’m sure she was, but there wasn’t much she could do about it so she just moved on. We often ridicule people with a sense of entitlement—which we seem to define as anyone who thinks they have a right to something without working for it. But when we do work for something, even if the work we did was pretty marginal, we’re outraged to lose it. Most people with 401-Ks lost a lot of money in the past year, but it makes as much sense and does as much good to complain about it as it would have for that robin to complain about the loss of her genuine nest eggs, along with her nest itself, since it’s unusable now that a chipmunk has discovered it. Complaining wouldn’t help—it wouldn’t bring back her eggs, wouldn’t punish the chipmunk, and would make it easier for a hawk to notice her and dispatch her to the same netherworld as her eggs. No, she will start a new nest and lay new eggs in a new place and hope for the best but always have a Plan B ready to begin the moment Plan A doesn’t pan out. Meanwhile, the chipmunk will raise her own babies, and hope for the best but be ready to move on to the next batch if a cat or weasel or lawn pesticides dispatch them.

In nature, the assumption is never that the future is rosy or that things are under control. This year several pairs of Canada Geese at Sapsucker Woods lost their nests to what we think was a mink. There are cleaned out broken egg shells littering the area where each nest was, and even those of us who know there are too many geese feel sad after watching all the diligence and work that went into defending the territories, building the nests and lining them with the female’s own plucked out belly feathers, and the endless incubating and guarding for weeks, only for them to be lost to one hungry mammal. I’m sure the geese squawked a lot while their nests were being raided, but by the next morning the pairs had all moved on. Some will renest, some have given up for the season. Bad things happen, but they still bask in the sun and float together on the pond and take each day as it comes, the good and the bad, knowing that Mayday may be a cry of alarm when facing a worst case scenario, but it’s also a beautiful spring day filled with sunshine or soft rains and opening flowers and migrating birds and increasing warmth on the horizon.