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It’s In Your Nature: We’re on the brink of nesting season

The Canada goose is not one of my favorite birds. The resident population has exploded and they seem to be everywhere. I’m not sure they’ve taken over another bird’s niche so in that respect they, unlike the introduced European starlings, have not affected other birds’ populations. However, with their increasing numbers, these eating and “pooing” machines are befouling many areas we enjoy frequenting. But it appears they are here to stay and I’ll use their familiarity to begin my topics for this week’s column.

You may have noticed that the flocks of 20, 30 or more geese have seemed to disperse. Also, at the same time, at least I’ve noticed that pairs of “Canadas” have been claiming some lake shore areas and particularly small ponds or impoundments. They are pairing up and may have already begun nesting. Canada geese are precocial birds. Precocial birds generally lay many eggs in a nest, one egg a day, and begin incubating the eggs when the clutch is finished. I believe without exception, that precocial birds have only one nest a year.

Geese, ducks, turkeys, grouse, or pheasants are all precocial birds. Again, generally, precocial birds may lay 8, 10 or 12 eggs. A wood duck, nesting in a cavity sometimes 20 or 30 feet high in a tree, often lays 10 or 12 eggs. The Canada goose nest usually consists of 5 or 6. Precocial birds need to lay more eggs because of this: A gosling/duckling/chick, within hours of hatching is active, out of the nest and following mom, and rarely males as they begin feeding. Precocial young are completely feathered,(mostly downy feathers), and have rather well-developed beaks, feet, and eyesight. They face many perils in the first weeks of their lives. First, they still are unable to fly, and a mallard duckling following along with the hen may be eaten by a snapping turtle, a fox, or a hawk while swimming in a pond, stream, or along the shoreline. Downy feathers are not good at repelling rain; thus, a hen turkey would try to huddle her young under her wing (literally) to protect them from the elements. A particularly wet spring can seriously affect the success of young turkey or grouse survival.

Altricial birds are the majority of the birds of which you are familiar. Robins, bluebirds, wrens, swallows, sparrows, and even hawks, eagles, and owls are altricial. The songbirds generally have two nests per year, but usually only about 4 eggs in each nest. The young are born basically without feathers, completely helpless, poor eyesight, and unable to survive out of the nest. Most songbird females do the brooding, and after about 16 to 20 days they hatch. Both parents bring food to the young, and unless the nest is discovered by a predator, all four usually survive until able to fly from the nest. I’ve noticed, after checking the progress of hundreds of bluebird nests, that the second nest of the season usually has one less egg then the first. (Not sure there is one specific reason for this.)

Raptors are precocial birds but have only one nest a season, with an eagle laying 2 or maybe 3 eggs, and hawks 3 or 4. The young are born feathered but quite helpless. Bald eagle males and females share in the incubation time and sheltering the young in the nest in the first weeks of their lives.

With the exception of raptors, both altricial and precocial females don’t incubate the eggs until the last egg in the clutch is laid. Canada geese nesting now, may have lost some eggs due to the below freezing temps we had this week. Owls and eagles begin warming the eggs after the first egg is laid, resulting in birds of different ages in the nests. I’ll discuss this more in a future column.

Birds are arriving back here from their wintering areas, so get out there and look.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: I mentioned in this article that wood ducks can nest in a tree cavity 20 or 30 feet above the ground. Which of these ducks also nests in tree cavities? A. Hooded merganser; B. Mallard duck; C. Common loon; D. “Daffy Duck.”

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: The process of a young bird breaking out of its shell is called pipping.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

These mallard ducklings stay close to the mallard hen depending on her for alerting them to danger and showing them how to feed. These are probably about one week old, able to swim, but still haven't developed flight feathers. BARRY REED PHOTOS
These four “fluff balls” are screech owl young about 4 or 5 days old. They are altricial young, covered with downy feathers, and completely reliant on the female owl to warm them and for both parents to bring them food.
These turkey poults are probably 10 to 14 days old. They are still unable to fly but in a week or two will have developed enough flight feathers so they can flutter up into a shrub or low branches to elude a hungry fox or weasel. I only saw a total of four young with the hen so she already may have lost half of her brood to the elements or predators.
These cedar waxwing young are examples of altricial birds. Born almost featherless, with poorly developed feet, and dependent on the male and female to warm them, cover them from rain or heat, and to bring food to them in the nest.
This robin nest contains three eggs, the next day there were four and then she began to brood them after her clutch was complete. A precocial bird's nest, such as a turkey, may contain 10 or more eggs and hopefully no roaming predators find them until she begins brooding them.