Book excerpt: By July, fledglings grow independent

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Published: 6/27/2019 10:00:13 PM

July is a time of growth and development in the natural world. The young of most species are born, raised and taught how to survive on their own within a few short months. Birds fledge. Insects hatch and mate. Tadpoles mature. Young turtles and snakes, most without parental guidance or protection, learn how to secure food and avoid predators. Most young mammals receive intense instruction from their parents on everything from avoiding detection to hunting techniques. Flowering plants that were successful in attracting pollinators produce fruit. The spore-bearing structures of non-flowering fungi pop up and disperse their spores. Plants and animals alike make the most of the warm summer days.

In my book Naturally Curious, I provide hundreds of small takeaways — dubbed “Nature Notes” — for each month of the year. These are brief summaries of what a given species is doing at that particular time. Here I’ve provided a sampling of the birds that are busy maturing in various ways as we enter the month of July.

Hairy Woodpecker — Feeding Young

After about a month of life inside a tree cavity, hairy woodpecker nestlings fledge. After leaving the nest, a fledgling is often seen with one parent—the fledgling is dependent upon it for several weeks for food. Right after fledging, the young woodpecker often remains on a tree branch for several hours, waiting for its parents to come feed it. In time, it explores its surroundings, and it is not unusual to have the two birds visit feeders, with the adult feeding its young.

Common Loon — Feeding Young

At about three weeks of age, the sooty black down on newborn loon chicks is replaced with gray/brown down. The parents continue to feed their young for several weeks. Initially the adults place the food in the chicks’ beaks, but as time goes on, in an effort to wean the chicks from being fed, they drop it in the water for the chicks to retrieve. By summer’s end the chicks are totally independent.

Tree Swallow — Feeding Young

As they age, tree swallow nestlings come to the entrance hole of their nest cavity — be it a tree or birdhouse — to be fed, often sticking their heads out of the hole. Both parents feed their young. They carry food in their bills and throats and place it directly into the open mouth of the begging nestling. A variety of insects are fed to the nestlings, but flies make up a major part of their diet. Young tree swallows can fly when they leave the nest for first time, and do not return.

Wild Turkey — Sign (Dust Bath)

In dry weather, especially during nesting and molting, adult wild turkeys (as well as ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasants, wrens and others) spend considerable time “dusting” in ant hills, leaves, or decayed logs. The turkey rakes in dirt all around its body with its beak, and then works the dust into its feathers by flapping, kicking, and rolling. It then stands and shakes itself thoroughly (often leaving traces of its actions in the form of loose feathers).

Although the function of this behavior is not known, it appears to improve the alignment of the barbs of the feathers. It also makes the outer contour feathers dry and fluffy so the interior down feathers fill the space between the contour feathers and the birds’ skin, improving the insulating quality of the plumage. It is also possible that dusting rids birds of fleas, mites, lice, and other parasites.

Eastern Bluebird — Feeding Young

As is often the case with birds, the female eastern bluebird does most of the nest-building and incubating of eggs, although the male helps feed the young once they’ve hatched. Clutch size varies with latitude and longitude, with bluebirds farther north and farther west having larger clutches, and eastern bluebirds typically have more than one brood each year. Young produced in early nests usually leave their parents in the summer, but young from later nests frequently stay with their parents over the winter.

Song Sparrow — Feeding Young

Quietly and secretly, early in the morning, the female song sparrow builds her nest in a secure, concealed spot. In roughly four days she finishes construction of the nest, which is composed mostly of grass and weed stems, leaves, and strips of plant bark. Rootlets, grasses, and hair are used to line the nest. After laying three to five eggs, the female incubates them without help from the male. Both parents feed the hatchlings high-protein meals consisting of insects; eventually the young birds’ diet expands to include seeds and fruits.

Common Raven — Sign (Inside-Out Carcass)

Even though their bills are impressive, common ravens are unable to tear open the carcasses of deer, or even smaller animals such as raccoons, rabbits, and foxes. Usually they wait for carnivores or other scavengers to rip open these tough-skinned carcasses, and then they eat them.

Occasionally, though, you will come across the carcass of a gray squirrel that has been turned inside-out. Instead of tearing them open, ravens often get at the flesh by turning the squirrel inside-out through the squirrel’s mouth.

Indigo Bunting — Singing

By July, the woods and fields of New England have quieted down. Although some birds are still singing, the number of individuals and frequency of their songs has declined since June. Male birds sing in order to stake out their territories and announce their availability to females (some females, such as Baltimore orioles, cardinals and rose-breasted grosbeaks, sing too, but they are in the minority).

By July, most birds have mated and their young have fledged. Because their songs have performed their intended function, they cease to be sung.

Among the birds whose voices you can still hear are the indigo bunting, eastern wood peewee, red-eyed vireo, scarlet tanager and common yellowthroat.

This excerpt from the revised and updated edition of Naturally Curious by Mary Holland, due out next week, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books, an independent publisher based in North Pomfret (www.trafalgarbooks.com and www.horseandriderbooks.com).

Mary Holland is a Vermont naturalist, photographer, columnist, and author. She lives in Hartland.




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