Fledging Families: From Nest To Independence

Fledging Families: From Nest To Independence

Courtesy of Mateusz Stępień, Unsplash

Breeding season is a fascinating part of the avian calendar, but after the courtship displays, nest-building, and then an incredibly tense time waiting for the arrival of precious chicks, what happens next? As summer creeps in, these new young birds reach a pivotal stage as fledglings, where they have to leave the nest and venture out into the world. But do all birds leave “home” for good, or do some stick around with the folks?

When breeding season finally comes to an end, nests bursting with those new fledglings lucky enough to make it through the first days and weeks of their lives now face a greater challenge altogether – getting by without mum or dad dangling food in their faces every waking minute. Faced with sudden independence, it's time for these fresh young things to embark on a journey of self-discovery.

Courtesy of Richard Sagredo, Unsplash

Leaving the nest is a crucial step towards adulthood, but the timing of fledging and then subsequent departure from that safety net varies among different bird species. While some will remain close to their parents, often for long periods of time, others seemingly can’t wait to venture out on their own.

Courtesy of Anca Muresan, Unsplash

Home is where mum and dad is

Whether a fledgling leaves its parents or not tends to largely depend on whether they are resident or migratory species. Some resident bird families like crows, ravens, and pigeons are also gregarious, or sociable birds, and these species all exhibit strong familial bonds long after the breeding season finishes. Many will remain with their parents for quite some time, as well as forming social groups or flocks with other families. In some cases, those family groups persist throughout the rest of the year and even into the next breeding season and beyond.

Crow's nest. Courtesy of Wallpaper Flare

American Crows are one such species, where not only do the juveniles continue to hang out with mom and dad, but they also earn their keep by aiding in territory defense, helping out with nest-building in the next season, and they also do their bit in chick-rearing duties. This is known as cooperative breeding – where more than two birds help out. Some studies have shown these crows can stay with their families for five years or so, with often up to ten birds taking a shift in duties. The cohesive nature of these family groups is a fundamental factor in just how successful these bird species can be – if you look around you, you may realize you’re never really that far from a crow, and that crow is never really far from another crow.

Where the wind takes me

In contrast, many migratory bird species such as swallows, warblers, and storks will disperse quite soon after the breeding season, once the fledglings are strong enough to fly and forage on their own. When the daily temperatures have shifted to become just too cold for comfort and it’s time to embark on those long-distance journeys to their wintering grounds, it’s every bird for themselves.

Courtesy of Yiyu Cheng, Unsplash

Familial ties are simply unlikely to withstand the challenges of migration. It is perfectly possible an individual will encounter a bird they know from the same family during their journey, and maybe even at the final destination, but that likelihood is slim, and instead they use the opportunity to meet other birds to form new social bonds.

However, as always there are exceptions. Albatrosses stand out as an example of a species that values the Bank of Mom and Dad. These seabirds have one of the longest fledging periods in the world, often lasting for several years, during which the chicks will stay close to their parents, relying on them for nourishment and protection.

Black-browed Albatross and Chick. Courtesy of Liam Quinn, Wikimedia Commons

They will still be learning essential survival skills through interactions with their more experienced elders, but the nature of an albatross’ foraging behavior means that this this longer period ensures the chicks fully develop necessary navigation skills, following in their parent’s wingbeats across the vast oceanic distances as they seek out their food from beneath the waves.

The Falling ball

There are also those bird species who opt for a different family strategy altogether. Common Murres are a large auk species found mainly on the Pacific coast, making their homes in one of the most inhospitable environments you can think of – on sheer rocky cliffs high above churning oceans and crashing waves. Murre chicks leave their parents almost immediately after fledging, as the competition for nesting sites and food is fierce. Known as rapid dispersal, common murre chicks leave the nest around three weeks after hatching, and even before their flight feathers have fully developed. This may seem rather reckless, but the payoff for all involved means less pressure on food.

Common Murre. Courtesy of Dick Daniels, Wikimedia Commons

Common murres are also sometimes called “footballs with wings” – they have rounded bodies covered in thick swathes of fat. Chicks need to eat almost constantly to gain this weight, putting a great strain on the parents who both have to bring fish almost constantly – but they do so willingly as the payoff is worth it. Come fledging time, the male adult murre escorts Junior to the edge of the cliff and looks on as the young chick instinctively flings itself into the void, hurtling towards the swirling waters below or onto the rocks. But this isn’t a crazy Russian Roulette thing; not being feather-ready to fly doesn’t actually matter when you can bounce.

Photo taken with Bird Buddy

Remarkably, when these chicks miss the water but hit the rocks, those extra layers of fishy blubber means they simply rebound and eventually make it to the water at some point. When they finally get wet, they call up to dad who is still watching from above, he replies to confirm he heard, and that’s the end of the family unit. While it may seem harsh to us, this quick departure maximizes everyone’s chances of survival and whilst still managing to maintain the overall population balance.

While the family dynamic is different among all avian species, the primary goal is always to encourage the young fledglings to become self-sufficient and establish their own territories, even if that means years off into the future. Parents can only provide a safety net for so long, and once they have passed on their hard-won experience, it is time for every new bird to take that leap – and sometimes bounce — as they transition from hungry, blind dependent nest-dwellers to independent flyers of their own skies.

Photo taken with Bird Buddy

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