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Bird Nest Update: And Then They Were Gone

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Back at the end of May, two house finches decided to make one of our porch lights their home. They built a little nest but were so shy they only showed their butts whenever I tried to snap a photo.

A little while later, there were eggs! Five little beautiful eggs that hatched into four little pink babies (unfortunately, one didn’t make it). They grew bigger and bigger, and we saw both Momma and Daddy bird tending to them. I couldn’t wait to see the babies learn to fly!

One of my most recent photos of the baby finches.

But then one morning, to my horror, I looked up at the nest through our front window and saw that the lightbulb in the porch light had fallen down near the nest!

Oh no! The lightbulb fell down!

Originally when I saw Momma and Daddy bird building the nest, I unscrewed the bulb. But I couldn’t get it out of the light fixture, so I just left it balanced on top of the socket. At the time it seemed pretty stable to me.

I went outside to investigate. All the birds were gone! Babies, Mom and Dad, everyone. The nest was completely empty.

Oh dear…an empty nest, thanks to the fallen lightbulb.

And it stayed empty. All day. And the next day, and the day after that.

What happened? How did the lightbulb fall? Maybe Mom or Dad bumped into it. I didn’t think the babies were ready to fly yet, but maybe they were? They were definitely too big for Mom and Dad to carry them to safety. There was no evidence of baby finches anywhere around our front lawn, so I guess the whole family flew away.

It is interesting, because if the fallen lightbulb was the reason they all fled, the lightbulb had been there the whole time. It just fell close to the nest. Although the birds might have been “used to it,” was it now just too close for comfort? Or did they never really notice the lightbulb in the first place and suddenly this big white thing tumbled down? Or maybe the babies were ready to fly away anyway, and during their mass exodus, they dislodged the lightbulb. Maybe the lightbulb wasn’t the reason they’re gone after all.

I guess what really happened will remain a mystery. I just hope they are all okay.

It was such a sweet surprise to share our spring with a little bird family. I learned so much. And my kids got to see the birds start a family and witnessed our excitement and respect for nature. For all of that I am grateful.

A male and female house finch. Maybe we’ll host another family next year? Photo source: iNaturalist.

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Bird Nest Update: Father’s Day for a Daddy Bird

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Time for an update on the bird family that is living in the light fixture on our front porch!

Last week (around June 14) I took a peek into the nest and the chicks were certainly bigger and were starting to sprout feathers:

Baby birds with feathers starting to grow!

I also saw something I find super interesting: The father bird came back to the nest! Admittedly I don’t know much about birds (but I’m learning!) and I assumed just the mother bird looked after the chicks. But the father came back and saw me and started chirping at me. Was he telling me off in his own way?

The father bird perched on our string of Christmas lights near the nest. (I guess it’s a good thing we were too lazy to take down the lights so that Mom & Dad bird have a place to stand guard…)

Watching both the Momma and Daddy bird go to and from the nest, I’ve been able to get a better look at them, and I’m pretty certain they are house finches. Super Interesting Observation #2: I’ve seen the Daddy bird feed the chicks! He’s a real hands-on dad.

Now, another week later, I looked through our front window at the nest and I saw baby bird faces! They’ve grown so big. So far I’ve been able to count four chicks. There were originally five eggs so I guess one of them unfortunately didn’t make it.

Three little opened beaks waiting for their next meal.
A close-up of one of the sweet chicky-faces.
A view of the nest from above. The chicks certainly look more like birds now.

It is amazing how much the chicks have grown in just two weeks. Mom and Dad keep going back and forth, feeding the little mouths.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy Bird! What a sweet little family you have. Thank you for letting me watch and learn.

Mom and Dad house finch keeping watch on their chicks. Dad is on the left, Mom is on the right.

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Bird Nest Update: The Babies Have Arrived!

By Posted on 2 min read 511 views

About two weeks ago I told you about birds that built a nest in our front porch light. And I couldn’t get a good photo of the momma in the nest because she kept showing off her butt. Well, here is an update! And it is exciting.

Several times a day I look out our front window at the light to see how things are going in the nest. Momma still shows me her butt now and then, but now I often see her hunkered down and her sweet little eye seems to be watching me. I try not to scare her, so I just peek from the side of our window. This week I realized it’s been a while since I took the photo of her two eggs, so I waited until Momma was not in the nest and I took another picture. Look at this:

Look! Now there’s FIVE eggs!

There’s no longer two eggs, but FIVE eggs! Wow! Momma has been busy. This is so exciting!

But wait, it gets even better.

This morning I thought I’d check in on them. And look! Babies!

Brand new baby birds. Hooray!

They are so new and pink and beautiful. And as you can see, there is one egg left, or maybe it’s just an empty eggshell. It’s hard to count the babies because they are in such a tight little bundle. I hope, if it is a full egg, that the baby is just a late bloomer. But it got me thinking: What happened to all the other eggshells? From what I could find online from reputable sources, adult birds can eat the eggshells (a good source of calcium), or they fly from the nest, carrying the eggshell, and drop it far away. It’s not good to keep eggshells in the nest because: (1) they take up space in an already squishy home; (2) they are sharp and can cut the delicate baby birds; and (3) the exposed inside of the egg is not camouflaged like the outside, and can act like a beacon to predators. Which made me think, Aha! No wonder I sometimes find empty half-eggshells lying around outside, seemingly nowhere near a nest. Momma bird dropped it far away as part of her parenting duties.

Welcome to the world, little ones! You are such sweet little pink packets of joy, and I look forward to watching you grow.

Reference

Birkhead, T. (June 20, 2016). The art of hatching an egg, explained. Retrieved June 6, 2020 from https://www.audubon.org/news/the-art-hatching-egg-explained

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Bird Butts and Drama

By Posted on 4 min read 544 views

The other morning I was sitting at our dining room table (my writing spot) when I noticed some commotion outside our front window. Two small birds were flitting around one of the light fixtures above our front porch. My heart swooped. Are they thinking of building a nest? In the past birds had used our light fixtures as a home but it’s been a long time since that happened.

(Which makes me wonder, why did they stop building nests there? How does a bird decide where to build its nest? Does it depend on the type of bird? Questions for another day and another blog.)

A little while later, when the birds were not around, I went outside to look. They WERE building a nest! Hooray!

Our lucky light fixture that might be a new home for birds!
A bird’s-eye-view (ha-ha) of the beginnings of a nest.

It is amazing how fast those birds work. I didn’t time them, but it was like less than an hour or something from when there was nothing in the light fixture to the scaffolding of a nest seen in the photos above.

Then I felt a twinge of panic. What if we turned on the porch lights at night? With two small children in our house I couldn’t guarantee that everyone would remember to leave the lights off. The light would blast the birds and they’d be terrified, I’m sure. And then they might abandon the nest and they’d have to find someplace else and start all over again. And selfishly, I want the birds to stay so I can watch them start a little family!

I have to unscrew the lightbulb, I thought. So I waited until the birds were gone, stepped up onto a stool, and tried to unscrew the bulb. But it was tricky. Because of the metal ornate design it was hard to get my fingers around the bulb. Then I got it, and unscrewed it…but then it fell onto the nest! AAAaaaahhh!!! Isn’t there a saying somewhere that if you touch a bird’s nest the bird won’t come back?? Nooooo!!! I panicked. I frantically reached in amongst the (annoying) metal loops and swoops of the fixture and eased the lightbulb up so it rested on top of the socket. Phew. I hope the bulb didn’t contaminate the nest…

(Note: Here is what Scientific American and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have to say about disturbing birds’ nests. According to them, birds might abandon a not-quite-finished nest if it is disturbed. But birds will not abandon their babies.)

I hurried back inside, crossed my fingers, and waited eagerly for the birds to come back. And they did! Phew. They worked on their nest and by the end of the day, it looked like this:

The birds came back and continued to build their nest! But it’s not quite finished yet, as the bottom still has some spaces.

By the end of the next day, the nest looked completely finished:

The nest is finished! Hooray!

Next, I wanted to figure out what kind of birds we are hosting. I saw them flying around the nest and they were always moving, so it was hard to get a a good, close-up look. (I watched them from inside our house at our front window.) And each time a bird was in the nest, all I could see was her butt! She always faced her butt to our front window:

Anytime the momma bird was in the nest, all I could see was her butt…

From what I could see when the birds had been flying around building their nest, there was a male and a female. The male had soft, blushy red around his head and neck, and the female was a speckled brown. After looking at photos online I think we have a family of house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus).

A male house finch (left) and female house finch (right). I think this is the type of bird that built the nest. Source: iNaturalist.

For the past couple of days whenever I look out our front window, I can see the momma bird hunkered down in the nest. I can just see the top of her head. If she’s staying in the nest a lot, that could mean she is laying, or has laid, eggs!

Yesterday I waited until momma left the nest for a bit (probably to grab a bite to eat?). I peeked into the nest and…look what I found!

Look at the two beautiful eggs in the nest!

Yes, I am a huge animal nerd. But there is something so sweet and heartwarming to know that you’re sharing your home with little wild sparks of life.

I’ll keep you updated!

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Self-Control in Crows: Can They Wait for a Better Prize?

By Posted on 0 Comments 5 min read 302 views

In a now-famous experiment, researchers placed a marshmallow in front of a child and told them that they could eat the marshmallow now, or, if they waited 15 minutes, they could have two. The researcher then left the room. If the child couldn’t wait for 15 minutes they could ring a bell to alert the researcher, and then they could eat the marshmallow. But if the child held out for the full 15 minutes, the researcher returned and gave them a second marshmallow.

Photo courtesy of ScienceNews.

Fifteen minutes is a heck of a long time to stare at a marshmallow you’re trying not to eat. I don’t know about you, but I’d fail this test! The researchers kept in touch with the kids who participated in the experiment. They found that kids who were able to endure the torturous 15 minutes in order to get two marshmallows instead of one, tended to do better in school and show success in other areas as well.

Psychologists use the fancy name delayed gratification to refer to this ability to wait for a better result. Delayed gratification is a form of self-control, and it is an important building block for things such as decision making and future planning. Kids tend to get better at delayed gratification as they grow older: 5-year-olds are generally better at waiting for two marshmallows compared to 3-year-olds.

Are other animals, besides humans, capable of delayed gratification? It might be no surprise that monkeys and great apes like chimpanzees are able to wait for a better result. In some cases, they even held out longer than adult humans! One species that shows great potential for delayed gratification is New Caledonian crows. They are impressive little tool-users, often using twigs to fish grubs out of logs. Given their incredible problem solving abilities, are they also able to wait for a better prize?

New Caledonia is an island off the coast of Australia:

Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica. For more information on New Caledonia, look here.

A group of scientists travelled there and caught nine wild New Caledonian crows using nets. The scientists kept these crows in a large aviary during the experiment. The crows were given the names Jupiter, Mars, Triton, Neptune, Io, Mercury, Venus, Uranus, and Saturn. Then, once the experiment ended, they set all the crows free where they were originally caught.

First, the scientists had to find a prize for the crows that the crows really liked. It turns out that they don’t mind apple slices but they really like pieces of meat. The scientists kept this in mind for their experiment. (The scientists didn’t feed the crows marshmallows. Do crows even like marshmallows? I’m not sure…but marshmallows would be a terrible thing to feed crows anyway! Much better to offer them food similar to what they would find in the wild.)

The contraption that the scientists used was quite cool. It was a large, round platform that rotated by remote control. The scientists placed the platform in a clear plastic box with an opening on one side, so the crows could only grab something off the platform if it was right in front of them.

The platform that was used to test delayed gratification in New Caledonian crows. It is enclosed in a plastic box, and crows can only grab something from the open end. In this photo are two objects to show where the food was placed. In this instance the crow could access the object in front, but could not access the object in the back until the platform rotated. Bottom centre of the photo is a large stick that was a perch for the crows. Photo courtesy of Animal Cognition journal.
A crow waiting to snatch something off the platform. Photo courtesy of Animal Cognition journal.

For the test, the scientists placed one piece of meat in one spot on the platform, and a pile of several pieces of meat in a second spot on the platform. They then left the aviary to let the crow swoop down to investigate. (The crows were very shy of people. They only checked out the platform if no one else was in the aviary with them.) When the crow was perched on the branch in front of the platform, a scientist activated the platform by remote control. After five seconds, the one piece of meat appeared in front of the crow, ready to be snatched up. However, if the crow waited fifteen more seconds, then the one piece of meat would have passed by and instead, the pile of meat would be there for the taking. The crow could only make one choice: grab the one piece of meat that was immediately available, or wait and grab the pile of meat. Once the crow made its choice, a scientist entered the aviary, the crow was spooked and flew away, and the experiment ended.

Remember how crows preferred meat over apple slices? Well, in a second test, the scientists put apple slices in position 1 and pieces of meat in position 2 (which rotated past, 15 second later). So the crows could take the less-liked food right away, or they could wait for the better-liked food.

So, what happened? In every case, the crows could pick one of two choices: the food immediately in front of them, or the food that took longer to arrive. If the crows just chose at random, we would expect them to choose the food immediately in front of them 50% of the time, and the food that took longer to arrive the other 50% of the time. It turns out, crows picked the bigger pile of food, and the meat over the apple slices, well above 50%. They certainly showed the ability to delay gratification. Interestingly, they were “better” at delaying gratification during the test with the apple slices versus meat, compared to the test where one piece of meat was pitted against a pile of meat. In other words, they were better at choosing between quality versus quantity. We’re not sure why that is.

Monkeys have also been tested with a similar set-up, where if they wait fifteen seconds, they can grab a better prize off the platform. These crows seem to be in league with those primates! And also, arguably, with humans. What would happen if the delay was increased? Are crows able to hold out longer for more meat, just as the kids did for their marshmallows? It remains to be seen!

Want to learn more about the amazing things that crows can do? Check out this fantastic book:

Reference

Miller, R., Frohnwieser, A., Schiestl, M., McCoy, D. E., Gray, R. D., Taylor, A. H., & Clayton, N. S. (2020). Delayed gratification in New Caledonian crows and young children: Influence of reward type and visibility. Animal Cognition, 23, 71-85. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-019-01317-7