Garden birds in June: Fledging

In June, parent birds encourage reluctant youngsters to leave the safety of the nest, while keen-eyed predators with their own hungry mouths to feed watch the newly fledged with anticipation, writes Dominic Couzens. 

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Spotted flycatcher fledglings in tree illustration by Peter Partington
In June, parent birds encourage reluctant youngsters to leave the safety of the nest, while keen-eyed predators with their own hungry mouths to feed watch the newly fledged with anticipation. 
 
June in the garden is a month of results, when baby birds are finally posted out of nests to announce the fruits of their parents’ labours.
 
The lawn fills up with brown starlings and trees play host to the new generation of tits with yellow cheeks and frothy calls. Everywhere in the garden there are youngsters facing up to their new lives with vigour and uncertain co-ordination in equal amounts – the newly fledged.
 
A fledgling looks fluffy and unkempt, and its wing and tail feathers appear to be too short for it. Far from being immaculate, as a new model should be, it will have an unfinished, imperfect, bulk-produced look. The clear implication is that there has been some cost-cutting in the course of its production.
 
Rough around the edges
 
And indeed, costs have been cut. Most of the energy derived from a nestling’s food is diverted into growing as rapidly as possible, not into producing magnificent plumage.
 
A youngster’s weight might need to increase by as much as 10 times from the point that it departs the egg to the point that it departs the nest.
 
That can leave fashionable fixtures such as plumage a little threadbare, though some of the loss is made up in the first few days after leaving. It’s the reason why young birds often look so scruffy and forlorn. 
 
Nevertheless, a fledgling leaving the nest is generally equal in size to an adult and can, in fact, look very similar indeed. All around the country, the layman asks: “Where are all the baby pigeons?” And the answer is: in front of you, but well disguised, hardly different from any other pigeons.
 
There are clear differences in detail between the adults and young of various birds for those who look carefully: a young woodpigeon will lack the white neck patch of an adult, a young blackbird will have its own shade of brown, and a young robin will have just a touch of ochre, not orange, on its breast.
 
If you are fortunate enough to have spotted flycatchers in your garden, this youthful stage is the only time that their eponymous spots will ever show. Indeed, spots – that unloved badge of adolescence – are often found on young birds’ plumage: on robins, blackbirds and green woodpeckers, for example.
 
Leap of faith
 
The actual leaving of a nest appears to be an agonising experience for both young and adults. It normally happens in the early morning, but can be highly protracted.
 
Perhaps the youngsters feel as unready and unsteady as they look, for most baby birds show a considerable reluctance to make the required leap from nest platform to perch.
 
No matter that in recent days they have been enthusiastically flapping their wings and, if they are in a hole, leaping up to the entrance. That was preparation; this is reality. In their hesitation they might require considerable coaxing from their stressed-out parent or parents.
 
In many garden birds, a genuine inducement is needed. The parents bring food to the nest as usual but, instead of offering it direct to the quaking youngster, actually remain a little distance away, out of range but not out of sight. Eventually hunger wins and the chick makes its first flight; but it’s often a tortured passage.
 
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