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Baby birds a cause for joy all summer

  • A juvenile eastern bluebird, as photographed by the author.

    A juvenile eastern bluebird, as photographed by the author.

Posted on 7/6/2020, 9:56 PM

Spring and summer are the seasons when birds across the United States settle down to breed. During this time of year you'll hear many of them singing in an attempt to attract mates and to mark and defend their territories. This is the traditional nest-building and mating time. In southern Illinois, we have more than 100 birds that nest and raise their young. In late spring and early summer the females lay eggs. The clutch size varies by bird species, and ranges from two to fifteen eggs. Songbirds incubate their eggs from 10 to 16 days -- larger birds, like geese, may sit on the eggs for a month before they hatch.

When baby birds peck their way out of the eggs their eyes are closed and they're featherless -- they are called hatchlings. After a few days they are able to see, become downy, and grow quickly in size -- now they're referred to as nestlings. The parents feed them from sunup to sundown, and in 10 to 15 days they will have grown in their feathers. At this point they are considered fledglings, following their parents everywhere and begging for food, even as they hone their flying skills and learn to hunt for seeds and insects on their own. Once fully feathered and able to fend for themselves, the young are known as juveniles. Juvenile birds are the same size as their parents, but their feathering may make them appear to be separate species -- making their identification by birdwatchers a challenge.

For example, young European starlings are all brown, young eastern bluebirds are spotted, and young bald eagles are mottled brown without a white head or tail. Indeed, some birds retain some form of juvenile plumage for many years; these birds are referred to as subadults. It takes a bald eagle four years before it sports a white head and tail, and is sexually mature. Meanwhile, other juvenile birds look just like parents within weeks, as is the case for northern cardinals and northern mockingbirds.

If you find a hatchling or nestling (a bird without feathers) on the ground, look in nearby trees for a nest. If you find it, gently scoop the bird up with your hand and return it to the nest. The old wives' tale about birds rejecting nestlings with human smell on them is not true. If you find a fledgling on the ground (a bird with feathers) the best course of action is usually to let it be.

Current regional sightings

Black-necked stilts were once rare in southern Illinois. Today, they are a regular sight in the Mississippi bottomlands, and increasing in abundance. These handsome black-and-white shorebirds look like they're wearing a tuxedo, and sport red legs and long bills. When defending their territory or guarding young, their constant yapping might remind you of excited poodles. With the current flooding around Grand Tower and East Cape Girardeau, they are easy to spot in wet grassy fields. And the black-bellied whistling Ducks are still being spotted in the same areas, especially at East Cape Girardeau, at Wolf Lake, and in and around Grand Tower. I was able to photograph both species with ease during the third week of June.

About the author

• Carbondale is my hometown, where I started birding 50 years ago. I spent an exciting 16 years as a bird guide, and have penned bird-finding books for five Arizona, California, and Illinois counties. I currently reside in Arizona, but visit my father in Carbondale often. You can reach me at