Inside the Outdoors: Songbird babies offer a lesson in survival

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Scientists tell us that when we look at a bird, we’re seeing a descendant of the dinosaurs, a branch of that evolutionary tree that survived the asteroid or meteor impact with Earth 65 million years ago that doomed the rest.

The resemblance seems most evident when we see a songbird without the feathers that keep it warm and give it beauty, and—most important—allow it to fly. Before a nestling is fledged it is almost grotesque in its naked, helpless state. Bare, rubbery skin, outsized goblin eyes and a yawning beak give it a look that is almost reptilian.

We rarely see a young bird in this state, except when some mishap finds it prematurely out of its nest. It could happen when a predator raids a nest. If there are red squirrels in the neighborhood, they—the most omnivorous of our squirrels—might get the blame, deserved or not. Cowbirds are parasites that lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, rather than raising their own. Their young hatch before and grow faster than the offspring of the host, and—in competing for food—are said to sometimes push out the host’s own young. Unfledged nestlings rarely survive, and are even more likely than the rest of the 70 percent of songbirds that do not live through their first year.

There are less devilish but equally consequential causes of nestling ejections, like the recent high winds that were so unusual in their persistence and ferocity. Tree boughs bearing nests can be whipped by the wind enough for a young bird to fall out. A week ago, while picking up my granddaughter’s yard toys, my eyes were drawn to a dark object in the grass under the 50-foot spruce that towers over our yard. What I thought might be a toad proved instead to be an unfledged songbird. Its size suggested a robin or a blue jay, but the absence of feathers made identification uncertain.

The nestling was alive, with no visible injuries. Young birds can survive falls from a considerable height, although—lacking feathering to provide wind resistance—an unfledged bird would land with more impact. There was no nest in any of the spruce’s lowest branches, and—even if I had entertained the thought of putting it back—there was no way to reach the interlaced branches so far above where the nest might logically be.


As I watched the young bird I could see the faint vibrations of breathing. At the same time, I had little doubt that it was unlikely to survive. Even if its parents came to it there in the grass, it was so far from being fledged that it seemed impossible that it could be nursed there long enough to actually attain flight.

The all-too-human idea of “putting it out of its misery” crossed my mind. I even got the garden scoop with which I pick up after our dog, and considered scooping it into the trash. Yet it was alive, even if only barely. I also considered “Nature’s way,” which—even in the artificial environment of the backyard—would be to let some predator or scavenger decide the issue if the bird’s parents didn’t.

I moved it to a place in some taller grass where my granddaughter would be unlikely to encounter it, a place where a parent bird could find it if such an effort was made, and where a member of Nature’s clean-up crew might also find it, if it should come to that.

Later that day, with those fierce winds continuing to blow, my visiting son mentioned that there was a baby bird out on the lawn. I wondered if the bird I had relocated had managed somehow to flop or crawl its way to where my son had found it.

Not so. Bird #1 was where I had placed it. This one differed in one notable way. The tips of tiny tubular feather sheaths could be seen where real feathers would soon emerge. They had a blue cast to them, which I took as an indication that this was—that both of them were—blue jay nestlings. Perhaps this one was more developed because it had been born before the other. Or maybe it was better positioned in the nest to intercept the meals that a parent had been bringing, and had grown faster.

Though I was now more certain of the nestlings’ identity, I was no more able to help this one than its nest mate, so I carefully scooped it up and set it beside the other. If there was anything that a parent’s intervention could do for their predicament, doing this would offer the best opportunity.

The attempt wasn’t long in coming. As dusk was overtaking the evening and we sat watching a setting sun tint the eastern shoreline with the richest color of the day, a blue jay dropped down from the tree and landed where I had placed the pair of nestlings. Having the benefit of elevation on the deck, I could see a tiny head stretch upward, and the adult bend toward it. I could only presume it was to place a morsel of food in its eager mouth.

I did not see the feeding act repeated, but soon after that I watched an adult blue jay dive bomb a gray squirrel that was clinging to the trunk of the tall spruce. The squirrel beat a hasty retreat across the lawn with the blue jay in hot pursuit.


As darkness fell, I pondered what the night might bring for those two nestling jays hidden in the grass, far from the safety of the nest high above them. The cast of night creatures would include several that could make a meal of them, including silent-winged owls, a raccoon, a skunk or a fox. Blue jays are themselves opportunistic feeders. And while seeds, berries, nuts and insects are their primary food, they’ve been known to raid a nest and eat the eggs—even the nestlings—of smaller birds. Such are the ironies of Nature.

Perhaps it was overly sentimental to ponder the fate of these two infant blue jays, knowing as I did that their chances of survival were slim and none; and, as a friend says in long-shot situations, “Slim just left town.”

Next morning, out on the deck for the first coffee of the day before starting work, I walked to where I had left the pair of nestlings. Neither was anywhere to be found. The most obvious conclusion was that a predator or scavenger had found them. Perhaps I had not done them any favor by saving them for such a fate. But neither had I intervened in the natural order of things; instead allowing another creature to profit from their demise.

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