Friday, May 8, 2015


When you live in a college town everyone feels the rhythm of the academic year. Summer is relatively quiet. Come August, though, excitement builds as students arrive. The stores and roads are busier, nighttime near campus is rowdier, and everyone wears school colors as the football season begins again. There is a lull during the winter holidays, but the bustle returns once the Spring semester gets underway. In March and April the mood becomes more serious. Shorts and flip flops are replaced with business clothes and briefcases as the soon-to-be graduates apply for internships and attend job fairs. Graduation weekend comes at the end of April or beginning of May and proud families commemorate the event with photos of their young adults taken in front of the local landmarks. Hope and possibility fill the air. Young people step up and try their wings and their parents step back and trust that their offspring have learned what they need to make it on their own.

Common Gallinule and 6 Chicks, Growing Fast!

I am happy to say that our own daughters fledged successfully several years ago, but I remember each and every benchmark along the way. Pre-school, elementary school, middle, high school, and college, lessons, clubs, summer programs, student loans and study abroad, dating, marriage, jobs. We tried to teach them how to be kind and ethical people, did our best to keep them healthy, and worried about them when they were not. Together we navigated the emotional ups and downs of growing up--making and losing friends, moving, academic pressure, boys, and just the general unease of the teenage years. I remember at each stage agonizing over how to let them go and do what they needed to do without having their parents by their side. I never stopped worrying. But we gave them independence, little by little. And, just like when you are learning to ride a bicycle, when we let go, they glided off as smooth as can be.

Successful Fledgling--Mockingbird

In our yard, and pretty much everywhere I go, birds are nesting, chicks are hatching and fledglings are fledging. The butterflies are laying eggs, caterpillars are munching host plants, and chrysalids are already appearing on unfortunate places like my front door. Spiderlings have emerged from eggsacs left by their mothers before the cold weather killed them. Paper wasps build nests under leaves. Softshell turtles lay eggs on the banks of the water. Tiny offspring of watersnakes that mated in March have hatched and are fending for themselves. Mama gators watch last fall's young, even as they prepare nests for the next clutch. Parents of all shapes and sizes will be guarding, feeding and preparing their young in the best way they can so they can reach maturity and continue the cycle of life.

Spiderlings on Lyreleaf Sage (Salvia lyriata)

Mama Gator and Young

Hungry Titmouse Chick
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher on a Lichen Nest

Blue Grosbeak Nest with Eggs

I am constantly filling and refilling the suet feeders in our yard because exhausted bird parents stop there to inhale some quick energy when they get a break from sitting quietly on a nest for days and weeks, not moving or making a sound so as not to draw attention to themselves. Or between flights back and forth taking caterpillars to their hungry young. A recent article about the importance of native trees in the landscape said that a Carolina Chickadee would need 5000 caterpillars to feed each clutch of eggs! Pity the poor, exhausted Chickadee parents. Hungry baby birds make such a ruckus calling for food that it's a wonder they don't all get eaten by predators. At Paynes Prairie, the poor Great Blue Heron adults hunt and hunt to feed themselves as well as their offspring that have nearly reached adult size. These babies are hungry and they sound like fighting bobcats screeching in the trees when mother or father return with food. It's full time working feeding baby birds!

Hungry Herons

White Eyed Vireo on Nest

Carolina Wrens Need Food Now!

Mama Thrasher and her 3 Hungry Chicks

Boat Tailed Grackle is Hungry!

Baby Crow gets the Last of the Suet

Daddy Cardinal Feeding Young

This Mississippi Kite Chick Cries All Day Until the Food Comes!

The perils are great as the young hatch and grow. My friend Rex Rowan talked about this in a recent blog post titled "A Hard World for Little Things". (His nature blog, Field Guide, is fun and interesting, and very informative, and I recommend it to everyone, not just Gainesvillians.) The young are in danger from day one. Eggs of every kind are a quick and easy source of protein and lizards, snakes and raccoons all know it. Once the eggs hatch, the young, be they chick or larva, are choice targets. They are small and vulnerable, and easy pickings for birds, cats, coyotes, hawks and crows. As I mentioned, hungry chicks make a huge amount of noise and attract predators. They are still in danger, even after they learn to fly, because they are young and inexperienced, just like their human counterparts. Juvenile birds don't sense the cat stalking or hear the whoosh of the hawk, or they fly into the window, or in front of a car. And then there are the Brown Headed Cowbirds, nest parasites who lay their eggs in other birds' nests, letting them raise the Cowbird's young at the possible expense of their own. The parents become targets, too, when they stop to lay eggs or fly back and forth with food for their young, or chase of predators. A tiny Mockingbird will gladly take on a Crow or Hawk if it is threatening the nest. It's tough out there.

This Black Necked Stilt Bravely Challenges an Alligator Heading Toward its Nest

Stinkbug Eggs

Downy Woodpecker Feeds Sawfly Larva to Young

Tiny Bluejay is Noisy and Easy to Catch

Tiny Clapper Rail 

Northern Parula Feeds Giant Cowbird Chick

Mother's Day is this Sunday and I'd like to honor of all the Parents, Mothers and Fathers and supportive caretakers out there (it does take a village!), doing their best to raise and fledge the next generations. It takes a lot of work to get our young ready to launch; lots of love, patience and time. And the gratification comes in the end results. In the words of Barbara Kingsolver, "But kids don't stay with you if you do it right. It's the one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won't be needed in the long run."  Happy Mother's Day, Everyone.

Osprey Family

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