Baby Birds of Minnesota — March - April 1994

by Janice Welsh

bald eagle

Imagine being a bird and learning to fly. You spend your first few weeks of life in a nest. You feel cool spring breezes blow through your downy feathers. Your parents feed you every few minutes from dawn till dusk. After a couple of weeks of eating and loafing, you begin to flap your wings and learn to fly. Sound like fun?

Baby birds may appear to enjoy a carefree life, but in reality life in the wild is difficult. Most young birds do not live to see their first birthday. They either starve, die from disease, or get killed by other animals. This story tells how baby birds in Minnesota live and grow up.

Making a Nest

Birds lay their eggs and raise their young in nests. Like a house, the nest might shelter them from rain and wind. Most birds use plants to make nests. Great-crested flycatchers add pieces of snake skin. Ruby-throated hummingbirds fashion caterpillar silk and spider webs into a tiny nest. Orioles use silk from milkweed pods.

Where Do Birds Make Their Nests?

Most songbirds nest in trees, shrubs, or buildings. Geese and some ducks build simple grass nests on the ground. They line the inside of the nest with down plucked from their own breasts.

Female birds usually make the nest. In the case of house wrens, woodpeckers, and swallows, both parents work together.

bird eggs

Hidden Eggs

Most songbird eggs have a pattern or a color that blends in with the nest. The color helps hide the eggs from animals that like to eat them. Woodpeckers and other birds that nest in tree holes usually lay white eggs. Their eggs do not need protective coloration because they are already well-hidden inside the tree.

If you find a small piece of eggshell on the ground, it probably means that an animal raided a nest and broke the shell to eat the egg. If you find half of a blue or white eggshell, it probably came form a robin or mourning dove. The parents drop the shells away from the nest to keep animals that eat eggs and hatchlings from finding the nest.

Amazing Eggzibit

"Eggzibit" is a collection of eggs from more than 90 different Minnesota bird species. You?ll find it in the DNR building at the State Fair in St. Paul every summer.

Growing Up

Feeding and caring for young birds is hard work for their parents. Baby birds grow very fast because they eat a lot. Trumpeter swan cygnets eat as much as 20 pounds of aquatic plants every day.

Eastern bluebird and purple martin parents catch hundreds of insects each day to feed their young. Songbirds fly back to the nest with food every few minutes from sunup to sundown. A female wren made 1,217 trips to her nest in just 16 hours.

great horned owl

Flying Lessons

The time when the chicks leave the nest is called fledging. A bald eagle chick practices flapping its wings in the nest atop a tall pine. Next it tries beating its wings into the wind and taking short hops above the nest. One day, a big gust of wind catches the bird's open wings and whisks it away. The parents follow the young eagle on its first flight.

When eastern bluebirds are 19 days old, the parents teach them how to fly. The parents sit on branches near the nest box and call to the youngsters, tempting them with food. Eventually, the young birds fly to the food.

Safety Tricks

Most young birds have protective coloration, or camouflage, which helps them hide from animals that might eat them. When a fox shows up, a bobwhite quail chick grabs a leaf with its feet, rolls onto its back, and hides under the leaf until the fox goes away.

Four Ways to Welcome Birds to Your Neighborhood:

1. Do not let your cat roam outdoors! Cats kill millions of songbirds every year. A bell on your cat won't warn birds in time for them to escape.

2. Feed the birds. Many native birds like sunflower and thistle seeds. Orioles, blue jays, and cardinals often bring their fledglings to bird feeders in the summer.

3. Keep a birdbath or shallow dish filled with water near your bird feeder. This gives birds a place to drink and bathe.

4. Many birds like to make their nests in birdhouses or nest boxes. If you'd like house plans for bluebirds, wood ducks, wrens, and tree swallows, send $2 to DNR Nongame Wildlife Program, 500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul, MN 55155. You'll also find nest box plans for 53 different birds and mammals in Woodworking for Wildlife, a DNR book available from bookstores.

baby robin

What Should You Do If You Find a Baby Bird?

If you find a young bird that has some feathers, it is probably fledging, or learning to fly. The best thing to do is to leave the bird where it is. Keep cats, dogs, and people away.

If you find a downy chick on the ground, it probably just hatched. Try to return it to its nest or make a nest for it nearby. Because birds have a poor sense of smell, the parents won?t know a human has touched their chick. Never give the bird food or water.

Call your local wildlife rehabilitation clinic only if the bird is injured or if you know that the parent bird was killed.

Are you ready for the Baby Birds Quiz?

Janice Welsh, who wrote this story, works for the Department of Natural Resources Nongame Wildlife Program and the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.

A complete copy of the article can be found in the March-April 1994 issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.