Monday, June 11, 2012

It's not easy being a bird

Mama wren sits on her eggs

Baby birds have it tough. Raccoons, snakes, squirrels, opossums, dogs, cats and even other birds are among the many predators eager to devour tiny hatchlings.

Humans are also drawn to these dainty dollops of feather and flesh but for a different reason. People simply find baby birds adorable. Anybody who has watched bird eggs develop into fluffy fledglings can't help but feel a sense of delighted attachment to the tiny chirpers.

That's how Ralph and I felt about the Carolina wren babies that nested in our garage this spring. Their woven cave of bamboo leaves and small twigs was wedged in between a messy scattering of boxes and other detritus that should have been tidied away well before bird-nesting season.

Carolina wrens have a propensity to build nests in close proximity to their human neighbors. The small cinnamon-colored birds with a white stripe above their eyes are quick workers. Both partners can build a nest in about the same time it takes two people to, say…pick up supplies at Home Depot, stop at the grocery store, go to the bank and enjoy a leisurely lunch out. In other words, the wily birds took advantage of the one time we forgot to close the garage doors when out running errands.

When we came back from town, we were too preoccupied to notice the nest. By the time we did, it was too late.

"There are eggs in it!" Ralph reported after illuminating the cavernous clutch with a flashlight.

"We can't get rid of the nest now," I proclaimed, despite knowing the consequences their feathery presence would bring.

The two reasons we don't want birds nesting in the garage involve messes and wasps.

A family of birds may be adorable but they can also be quite untidy. We learned that the hard way the year a pair of mourning doves built their nest atop the garage-door opener. As it turns out, dove droppings are far from inconsequential, especially when multiplied by a family of five.

The doves also taught us how readily mud daubers take advantage of a sheltered area with easy access. When garage doors remain open so nesting birds can fly in and out, wasps zoom inside as well. The resulting dried-mud structures dot the garage ceiling and walls. Although we have rarely been stung, it's unsettling to have so many wasps living in a space we frequent on a daily basis.

Thanks to the industrious wrens, however, thwarting wasps and avoiding messes became a non-issue. Captivated by feathery cuteness, we refocused our attention on the baby birds' development and welfare.
From eggs to hatchlings, Ralph and I checked their progress daily.

"Come look!" became our morning mantra followed by such statemens as, "They're getting so fluffy" and "Watch how they open their beaks when I make a kissy sound."

Day-old wrens open wide in anticipation of food

As the babies grew bigger, so did our attachment. For about two weeks, I snapped photos while Ralph peered more frequently into the nest of the almost-ready-to-fledge birds. Then one day, as we drove into the garage after another trip to town, we found mama and papa wren in a frenzy.

"Maybe I parked the car too close to the shelf," I suggested, backing out. "I bet the babies left the nest while we were in town and are somewhere in the garage or the shed."

While we searched the garage and connecting shed for the fledglings, the parents continued to flit about and scold incessantly.

"Something's wrong," I said. "I can't find the babies anywhere."

I was right. Something was wrong but we didn't find out exactly how bad things were until the next day when Ralph called, "Come quick!"

There behind the nest — the empty nest — wedged between the wall and the back of the boxes was one sluggish rat snake with a telling bulge in its midsection.

A thin rat snake with a telltale bulge
"Oh no!" I exclaimed. "A snake got them! All of them! No wonder the parents were frantic. That's so sad."

"But it's good for the snake," Ralph reminded.

I know he's right.

In order to survive, wild animals must find food and that means one critter's meal is another's loss. Baby birds have it tough, but so do rat snakes and every other creature whose next meal depends upon what they catch today.

Losing the baby wrens was upsetting, but life goes on. The parent birds will try again in another location and perhaps this time their babies will survive. As for us, we've added one more reason to keep the garage doors closed: Prevent messes, thwart mud daubers and avoid the sadness that comes with watching baby birds die to nourish another animal's life.

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