Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Happy Ending with Some Questions Left Unanswered

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Ever since April 10, when I looked out the window to see a chickadee digging out a hole in my cherry tree, I’ve been consumed with two backyard chickadees working together to raise a family. There was no way I could peek in this natural cavity to see anything, so the cherry tree has been a mystery box. The only way I could guess what was happening inside was to interpret what the parents were doing outside.  

Starting about the first of June or a day or two earlier, the parents started being a little less tolerant of me, especially near the nest, and since they’re the ones who created this splendid opportunity, I obviously had to honor their wishes. I did keep setting out a camera on a tripod, capturing video once or twice most days, and took photos from a bit further away, but was as quick about it as possible. Canon cameras record for exactly 29 minutes and 59 seconds and then stop, and my half-hour videos showed mostly nothing happening at all with maybe a few seconds showing a parent entering the cavity with food and then coming out, often with a fecal sac to dispose of.  

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

But Friday, June 4, when I took a quick look at the video I’d captured about an hour after the recording stopped, a baby was peeking out at the very end. That may well have been the first baby to fledge, but I’d missed it!

First peek at nestling chickadee

I quickly started recording again, staying at a respectful distance with another camera for still shots, and almost immediately, another baby popped up at the entrance. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

I took hundreds of shots with one camera as the one on a tripod recorded every movement. The little one made a hoarse little chick-chick-a-dee call as it came to the opening and looked out, and called several more times as the father alighted in a nearby bush. Dad sang a couple of the hey, sweetie! songs and an adult chick-a-dee-dee-dee call, then made the quick see-see-see call chickadees make when one decides to move to a different spot, like “I’m outta here.” 

The baby tracked him as he flew to a nearby tree in my neighbors’ backyard but was still a little hesitant—the video shows the tiny guy looking every which way, trying to figure out what was going on in this suddenly bright and humongously expanded universe. I captured a minute and a half of the drama, and since my really good directional microphone was attached to the camera, you can hear baby and dad’s calls. The baby made a final call at the entrance and flew out of sight, making one final call from offscreen.  

Chickadee fledging

The camera I used to make this video recording of the wonderful event was pointed at the nest, but my other camera and my eyes tracked the little guy to where the dad had landed in my neighbors’ yard. I took about a minute’s worth of photos over there, but it was tricky as the little guy got its balance as its father encouraged it to flutter to higher and higher branches. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

When he gave it a bite to eat, they were both behind foliage, so I didn’t get a shot of that, but did get a few nice shots of the little one before I stepped away. I don’t think I was stressing them too much, but didn’t want to risk making their day even a little harder than it already was.

Meanwhile, my other camera was still recording at the nest, and I came back outside to start it up several times before it stopped itself, so have recordings for a couple of hours afterwards, but no more babies emerged—the whole brood must have fledged before my camera was set up that morning and after the camera turned off with the one little guy at the entrance. About an hour after recording the last baby fledging, it did capture the father calling off camera, alighting at the entrance one last time with food, peeking in to make sure the nest was really empty with no babies left behind, calling off camera once more just in case, and then flying off. None of the family will ever return to the nest. 

Dad Making Sure the Babies Are All Out

I hoped against hope that the trail cam I had pointing at the nest caught at least some of the chicks fledging, but it didn’t. The cam was on a branch looking at the nest from a 90-degree angle, and the tiny ones must not have set off the motion detector. So now I’ll never know how many babies were in the nest, but I’m impressed that two parent chickadees could perform this amazing drama in plain sight while keeping so many secrets.

I heard the mother make a few calls in the tiny woods behind our backyards along with tiny sounds that almost definitely came from the other fledglings. A few minutes after I went in the house, Blue Jays started squawking which totally freaked me out—I will never forget the day last summer when my baby House Wrens fledged to my raspberry bushes. My Blue Jay family, making those same calls, flew in and massacred them. So this time I went out and whistled, drawing the jays to my feeder to take peanuts. I don’t know if this was a simple distraction or more like paying the Mafia protection money to leave something alone, but the jays obliged, and the chickadee family got away. Those two Blue Jays have just started nesting somewhere around here but don’t have chicks yet, so they aren’t as focused on eating young birds as they’ll be in a few weeks. But those jays do track my movements, so I won’t be looking for the baby chickadees at all in the coming days. 

In the days since the babies fledged, one of the adult chickadees has turned up at my window feeder a few times to grab a quick bite, but they’re mostly staying close to their fledglings as they hunt for food so the young birds can watch and learn. My backyard has too many squirrels and that Blue Jay pair, so until the babies are strong fliers, I don’t think the parents will be bringing them back to my yard. I’ll take plenty of pictures if the opportunity arises, but nothing could make me more thrilled than the photos and video I got of the last baby making its very first flight into the wide, wide world.  

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard