Birds make their lives look easy but it's incredibly tough to grow up out in nature. Just two months after leaving the nest, fledglings will either be starting out on their first migration or preparing for winter's blasts. Think of four young Baltimore orioles or chickadees lined up on a branch in July.
By next spring, only one of those four will still be alive, that's the cold hard truth of it. This is the most dangerous time in their lives, and nature isn't forgiving of rookie errors. Young birds have to learn and learn quickly. Some skills are hard-wired into their brains but still need to be practiced and perfected, while others may not be a matter of life or death but are critical to future success.
A young bird's foremost task is learning to evade all the creatures, from cats to hawks to snakes, that want to catch and eat them. This is the ultimate on-the-job training, requiring all senses to be attuned for potential peril, all of the time. Birds must constantly scan their environment and learn to listen to alarm calls made by other birds.
For example, a young catbird recently hopped under my bird feeders just as a chickadee, hidden in some shrubbery, emitted an extremely high-pitched whistle — its danger call. Seconds later a Cooper's hawk cruised through the backyard, but the catbird, recognizing the dee's signal, had gone into hiding and escaped this bird-eating predator.
Many young birds fly out of their nests, while others develop flight ability within a few days of hopping to the ground, but in both cases these skills are rudimentary. They need to learn to bank and turn and tuck in for a landing and many other elements of flight before they become masters of the air. Kim Gordon of Minneapolis tells of observing a young blue jay that aimed to land on a telephone line, "but would grab on and somersault around its unsuitable thinness, calling like mad."
Those birds that are migratory need to be ready for a long flight as summer nears its end, requiring strong flight muscles and a significant weight gain to fuel their early flights. Those that remain through the winter must begin preparing for the cold — some hide food for later retrieval while others, woodpeckers especially, create a roost site for winter nights.
Places to sleep and hide are important to survival. Several years ago house wrens raised their brood in cracks in a stone wall in my backyard. Once the little wrens left the nest they scurried back to the wall's crevices at the first hint of danger.
Is this food?
As Duluth naturalist Laura Erickson notes, "Figuring out cause and effect, and keen observational skills are excellent qualities for an opportunistic omnivore," like blue jays and other highly intelligent birds. Even birds with less flexibility in their diet will learn by tasting.
Parent birds feed their nestlings a steady diet of insect protein, but fledglings need to learn to broaden the menu. They watch other birds for hints and will try many things that catch their eye, including berries, seeds and their "baby food," insects.
They quickly learn what things are unpalatable (monarch caterpillars, for instance) and which are good to eat (mulberries, dragonflies, etc.). Several years ago I had my binoculars trained on a young Baltimore oriole on a branch when it suddenly vomited. He/she had just learned not to try whatever that was again.
There are a few things that are fairly easy to pick up, like bathing in a puddle or birdbath, but these improve with practice.
And there are skills that take an immense amount of work, such as learning the song of one's species, so important to attracting a mate and holding a territory in breeding season. Many young male songbirds learn their song from their fathers, others learn it from male neighbors, but it takes weeks or months of practice before the sounds they send forth match the song they hear in their heads.
Time is short and the list of skills needed to reach adulthood is long. Luck is a key ingredient in survival in the bird world, because even a tiny moment of inattention or a small miscalculation can have disastrous consequences.
As Jennifer Ackerman notes in her fine book, "The Genius of Birds," birds have quick, flexible minds to help them meet the many challenges in their lives. And they need all that intelligence and all the breaks they can get.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.