Nature Watch: Bird Parenting 101

Author: Steve Ellis | 05/24/23

About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.


The nesting season for birds continues apace this month. Most have secured breeding territories, found mates, constructed nests and laid eggs. Now comes the hard part!

Not all bird species approach parenting in the same fashion.

Both Killdeer parents share incubation duties. Should a predator approach, one adult will drag a wing, feigning an injury, in hopes of leading the danger away from the vulnerable nest. Killdeer young are precocial; they do not spend significant time in the nest and are capable of walking and running within minutes of hatching. The parents lead the chicks to water and food, but the young are capable of feeding themselves.

Bald Eagle parents take turns incubating during the required 35 days for hatching. The eaglets are then fed by both adults, who make four to eight feeding trips daily. At the beginning, they need to carefully tear up bits of food and actively feed the young. As fledging approaches, the adults fly over the nest and just drop food to their young from above.

Female Rufous Hummingbirds must do all the work – nest building, incubation, and feeding the young.  Her nestlings are induced to open their mouths when air from her wings washes over them. The female gently inserts her bill about halfway into the mouth of the young bird and regurgitates. For the first few days, the diet is mostly insects and spiders for protein and fat. Later, more and more nectar is mixed with insects.

Unlike hummingbirds, it takes a village to raise young crows. Often, helpers from the local clan will feed the nestlings in addition to the sustenance provided by the parents. These helpers are frequently the previous year’s young who are learning important parenting skills as they tend to their younger siblings. Other unrelated members of the clan also take turns feeding and watching over the nestlings. It’s no wonder crows are so successful.

Poet James Russell Lowell couldn’t think of anything as rare as a day in June. Perhaps rarer still would be an unharried adult bird this month. Some species take it to another extreme: attempting a second brood in July and August.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird at Crockett Lake Preserve. Photo by Jennifer Holmes.

Fauna: Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Red-winged Blackbirds are seven to nine inches in length, with wingspans of up to thirteen inches. The male is all black, with red to orange-red wing patches that have a lower border of yellow. Females are brownish and heavily streaked on the flanks and belly.

The diet of blackbirds is highly varied, with insects and other invertebrates predominating in spring and summer. In addition to pursuing beetles, grasshoppers and caterpillars on the ground, they also have the ability to fly out and snatch passing insects. When insect populations wane, they turn to eating seeds and fruit.

Red-wings often build their nests in cattails. A male may have multiple mates if his territory has enough food resources.

The female constructs the nest and lays three to four eggs. She does all the incubating, with the male on guard nearby. Fledging takes two weeks, with both parents feeding the young. Should a young bird fall out of the nest, it will swim to safety.

Post-breeding, blackbirds unite into large flocks. They feed on weed and grass seeds and on waste grain in agricultural areas.

Red-winged Blackbirds are important for controlling insects that might damage wetland plants. They are aggressive, physically attacking aerial predators and sending out alarms at the approach of land-based danger such as raccoons.

Your approach to a cattail marsh will be greeted with harsh “check-check” calls made by Red-winged Blackbirds. In summer, look for the pugnacious red-wings in wetlands and the nearby shrubs. In fall and winter, they can be spotted in fields and may visit your bird feeder.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird perched on a cattail plant. Photo by Jennifer Holmes.

Flora: Cattail (Typha latifolia)

Cattails are a common feature of local wetlands. Though they superficially resemble grasses, these highly successful plants are actually forbs (or wildflowers).

The leaves grow three to ten feet tall at maturity and have a width of 1.5 inches. They are gray-green above with a lighter green underside. By mid to late June, the plant grows a cylindrical, stout stem, which develops a thick brown spike holding the flowers at the top. The upper portion is thinner and supports the male flowers, while the tiny female counterparts are clustered below. When they ripen, seeds are contained in fluff that is blown free, usually in the fall or winter.

Cattails at Crockett Lake Preserve.

Cattails are the most important aquatic plant in local freshwater wetlands. Numerous invertebrates feed on the leaves, while geese, beavers, and muskrats forage on the rhizomes (root system).

Many waterfowl and amphibian species use the leaves as places of concealment. Marsh Wrens and Red-winged Blackbirds build nests in the cattail stands. Birds and mice use the fluff leftover from the preceding year to line their nests. Along with bulrushes, cattails also filter impurities from the water and stabilize the soils of pond banks.

Look for cattails around the edges of ponds, lakes and marshes. They can thrive in wet ditches and disturbed wet areas.

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