At the Nest II: We Can Fly!

On 24 July 2009 I returned to the Western Kingbird nest site that we profiled in our 18 July piece entitled, "At the Nest: Western Kingbird Photo Essay." As expected, three recently-fledged nestlings were found clustered together on the utility wire just a few meters from the nest shown in that post. I spent more than an hour enjoying the show as the youngsters made numerous short flights on uncertain wings and returned to the wire with all manner of clumsy landings. All the while, the two adults came and went in an effort to supply enough food for these three appetites with wings.

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Aside from a few bare patches of skin on the underwings, this threesome of juvenile Western Kingbirds, which were less than 20 days old, were covered with fresh feathers on 24 July 2009. They were about 30% smaller and very short-tailed, but otherwise looked very much like their parents. The approach of an adult with food (below) invariably triggered a frenetic burst of activity from the young kingbirds. They would begin jockeying for position with mouths agape.

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At first, the young kingbirds remained rather stationary on the wire. They chipped and chattered incessantly, as if their parents needed to be reminded that they were hungry. They also preened and stretched their stubby wings often and occasionally flapped their wings hard enough to briefly lift off the wire.

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In this image, one of the young kingbirds stretches its developing wings. Note how short and blunt the wings appear compared to those of the adult (in flight) in the photo above and how the flight feathers (primaries and secondaries) vary in length and width.

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The occasional short flight (above) usually concluded with a less than graceful landing (below). Note the erose tip of the tail of the righthand bird; the rectrices of these juvenile kingbirds were also growing in somewhat unevenly.

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After several rounds of feeding, the adults began landing about 10-15 meters away from the juveniles. The adults would then chatter loudly and flutter their wings. This seemed to be a signal, for each time they engaged in this routine, one or more of the young kingbirds would take to the air and fly over to join the adult. By the time I left, the young birds were moving about almost continually and venturing farther and farther away from the nest site. According to the homeowner (a Schwan's customer of mine), the birds moved across the road later that evening and never returned to the wires near the nest.

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In this image, an adult Western Kingbird flutters its wings, which usually resulted in the young birds flying over to join it.

Of all the behaviors I observed, I was most fascinated by the pugnaciousness of one of the young birds. At one point, a molting Brewer's Blackbird flew in and landed on the wire not far from the three youngsters. Kingbirds are aptly named because they rule their domain. They are absolutely fearless when faced by potential predators and other intruders and highly aggressive in defending their territories, nests, and young. Shortly after the blackbird landed, one  young kingbird took flight and attacked the blackbird, flushing it off the wire and causing it to leave the area. It was quite impressive to see a young bird--which was perhaps a day or two out of the nest and barely flying--go after a much bigger and older bird...and emerge victorious!

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In the series of three images above, one of the juvenile Western Kingbirds launches an attack on and displaces an immature Brewer's Blackbird that landed too close to the young sibling group.

The nearly two hours (two visits) I spent watching this family group was both entertaining and educational. All fledgling birds seem to possess a certain charm, thus it's hard to resist watching them come of age. It seems a wonder that these birds, which were fuzzy, partially-feathered nestlings a week earlier, are now fully-feathered and flying about. During the latter visit, it was clear that I was there on the day when this family was poised to leave the nest area. That process seemed to unfold right before my eyes. I returned again on 30 July 2009 and, as I expected, the family of Western Kingbirds had moved on. In the coming weeks, the three young kingbirds will complete their molts and with full wings and longer, more perfectly-shaped tails, they will embark on their first fall migration.

All photos taken by Dave Irons

1

Great series of photos and a wonderful story, thanks for sharing!

2

Awwww…I found happiness in reandig the news of your miracle Mo! And seeing that pic of your adorable Mo. So cute! Hey so you’ll have baby birds perched on your kitchen window soon. How cool will that be!?! I really like the sound of ‘exploring the love of stitch with a new series of work’ – Bring it on! I wanna see more! Happy day to you and Mo! xo

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