Bye Bye, Birdie

I am an empty nester. This past Monday, all 5 Northern Flicker chicks fledged. As I mentioned in my previous post, fledging means being fully feathered and having enough musculature built up for sustained flight. It’s not in the definition, but I suspect a part of fledging is also about attitude.

Tensions were high on the day of fledging with a fight for dominance of the entry hole.

In the final few days, and certainly on the day of fledging, it seemed tensions were high between the chicks. There was a lot more pecking and wing buffeting and it seemed to be growing in intensity as they fought to monopolize the entry hole. As a sibling, I can understand wanting to have your own space after so much time being cooped up together in the same room!

Things finally came to a head when, after a scuffle with another chick, the first chick took the leap of faith out of the nestbox at 1:04pm MST. The other chicks were very quiet after that. Were they stunned that they were now 4 instead of 5?

About an hour and a half later, just a few minutes after I got home and sat down outside to watch, the second chick to fledge flew out of the box and a third chick took pride of place at the entrance. I didn’t witness much of the fledging of the first 2 chicks, but it was clear the third chick was debating the merits of staying in the box versus leaving. For an hour and a half I watched as the third chick stuck its head out of the box, occasionally bracing a foot on the little ledge as if to push off, only to retreat back into the box. This was punctuated by thin “kleers,” a miniature version of the adult Northern Flicker’s call.

The female Northern Flicker feeds her chick one last time before it fledges. Photo by Jamie Simo.

I’ve read that birds hold off on feeding their young near fledging to encourage them to leave the nest, but this didn’t really appear to be the case here. The chick’s cries eventually caused both parents to arrive with food, which it gobbled down. It then continued trying to decide whether to leave until its siblings began calling from nearby in the neighbors’ yard. I could almost see it drawing confidence from them because shortly after 4:00pm MST, and not long after they began calling, it too leapt out of the box, flapping for freedom.

The third Northern Flicker chick to fledge. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It didn’t take nearly as long for chick #4 to leave the box. Instead of an hour and a half, it took roughly 40 minutes for it to decide to leave too. And that left one chick, most likely the youngest, though they were all about the same size by then and it was difficult to say who had hatched in what order. It seemed startled to suddenly be alone and began calling. Then, just 2 minutes after his/her sibling fledged, it too hopped to the entry hole and flew off.

When I cleaned out the box, I found a lot of poop and dust, but surprisingly no egg. Sometime in the last few days one of the parents must have carted it off. So, in a way, it too must’ve “fledged.”

While I’ll miss “my” chicks, I’ll always remember this summer fondly. I hope you enjoyed reading and/or watching their antics as much as I did.  Thus ends the Northern Flicker Saga.


A Tale of Tongues

The five Northern Flicker chicks are growing fast! Now fully feathered, they look like entirely different creatures than the long-necked, blind, pink things that hatched out just a few short weeks ago.

The male Flicker feeds one of his chicks at the nestbox entrance. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Not only have their eyes opened and their feathers grown in, but their claws have developed and the chicks are getting big. That means they have to climb to the top of the box to get fed at the entry hole, which leads to furious fights involving wing flapping and head pecks to either hold onto or usurp the prized position. In between meals, they spend a lot of time wiggling their tongues around and licking the box and each other. I assume this is a way of exploring their surroundings, like a toddler shoving everything into his/her mouth in order to taste it.

The Flicker chicks love exploring their box with their extremely long tongues. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The Northern Flicker has the longest tongue of all North American birds at 4 or 5 inches long. This tongue wraps around inside its skull and can dart out 2 inches past the end of its bill. Flexible and sticky with a lightly barbed end, it’s the perfect implement for wriggling into tight crevices and lapping up ants, the flicker’s favorite food. Any ants that escape feedings are now quickly slurped up by these ever-hungry and watchful little chicks.

While I’ll be sad to see these little guys leave the nest, I’ll also be excited to watch them take their first flights. In fact, they could be fledging any day now. Northern Flickers generally fledge (develop wing muscles and feathers of sufficient strength to allow flight away from the nest) between 25 and 28 days after hatching so the 3 older chicks could fledge as early as this weekend. Stay tuned!


Spotlight on Parks: Mesa Verde National Park

Before visiting Mesa Verde National Park this past Memorial Day, I had visions of stark, red sandstone cliffs, and sparse vegetation. I should’ve known better. After all, in Spanish, “Mesa Verde” means green table. Although dry by the standards of the Front Range, the oak scrub and pinyon-juniper woodlands of this southwestern Colorado park is a far cry from the blasted landscape I expected.

Balcony House. Photo by Jamie Simo

The most spectacular aspect of Mesa Verde is, of course, the cliff dwellings for which it is most famous. Mesa Verde was designated a national park on June 29, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt and was the first national park to preserve human culture rather than natural beauty, although it certainly has that too. Currently, the park protects nearly 5,000 architectural sites built by ancient Pueblo people who lived in the area from about 550 to 1300 C.E.

We arrived late afternoon on the Friday before Memorial Day and set up camp in Morefield Campground, which is operated by the vendor Aramark. Although the campground was busy, we were lucky to secure a site that backed up to a tangle of Gambel’s oak that was filled with songbirds, including a pair of Chipping Sparrows that happily brought hair and fluff to pad their nest, oblivious to the human observers sitting mere feet from them. Unique to the other parks I’ve camped at, Mesa Verde has its own gas station, limitless hot water showers in private shower rooms, and pancake breakfasts. I suspect these amenities are due more to the remoteness of the park than anything else, but boy were they welcome, especially the shower!

Chipping Sparrow at Morefield Campground in Mesa Verde National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

One of the best parts of camping for me is that you don’t need to set an alarm. Common Poorwills traded shifts with the day birds, including Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees and Hermit Thrushes just before 5am, singing me gently awake. While there were sightings of a black bear sow with cubs in the campground, I was lucky not to run into them the following morning. I did see several mule deer traipsing between tents, however, while I chased flycatchers and bluebirds.

Tickets to the most popular cliff dwellings, Cliff Palace and Balcony House, are just $4 and run on a regular schedule, so we drove down to Balcony House for the 10:00 am tour. Balcony House is built into the side of the cliff and was the next architectural evolutionary step from the pit houses the Pueblo people built on top of the mesas. These pit houses evolved into the “kiva,” an underground room in the cliff dwellings that served as a religious center. The theory for the transition is that moving into the cliff allowed easier access to water. At the back of Balcony House and other cliff dwellings water puddles in the form of a seep spring, so-called because it drips through the porous sandstone until it hits the less-porous shale below, whereupon it “seeps” out onto the alcove floor. The Puebloan people could then gather the water from the spring.

May and June are probably the best times to visit Mesa Verde; on our way down into and up out of Balcony House we got great views of the canyon below and various brightly-colored wildflowers and lizards. We had access to ladders to get back up to the mesa top when the tour was over, but the ancient Puebloans would have used hand and foot holds to free climb. Just thinking about that makes my palms sweat!

Scarlet Gilia. Photo by Jamie Simo.

On our second morning in Mesa Verde we decided to tour Long House. Long House is especially impressive for the sheer number of kivas. Our Park Ranger guide speculated that Long House used to serve as a ceremonial gathering site and that perhaps the large number of kivas allowed different groups of Puebloans the ability to hold religious ceremonies at the same time. While we looked around I marveled at the petroglyphs of hands on the back wall. Who did they belong to?

One of the park workers told us about a mountain lion with cubs denning just off Knife Edge Trail so we made a pilgrimage one afternoon. I have yet to see a mountain lion and was excited to see one with cubs. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the cats. We did see plenty of cottontail rabbits though.

Stone metate and mano used to grind grain, especially corn in ancient Puebloan society. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The entry fee for cars at Mesa Verde National Park is $10 a day in the off-season and $15 a day in the busy season. For motorcycles or bicycles, entry fees range from $5 to $8 depending on the season. Alternatively, you can purchase an annual National Parks pass for unlimited entry to all parks within the parks system. Camping reservations are done through Aramark.

Although it was chilly at night and hot during the day, camping at Mesa Verde was great and I’d love to go back and see some of the sites that we didn’t have time to check out. I’d also love to see the eastern collared lizard that I missed out on seeing. So much to see and so little time!

Nipping it in the Butt

The Northern Flicker family appears to be doing well. The first 3 chicks hatched out on June 1, the 4th on June 2, and the 5th on June 3. So far the 6th egg hasn’t hatched and I suspect it won’t since it’s been 14 days since it was laid and the parents don’t even seem to be incubating it much at all anymore. It’s probably a good thing, since it would be at a serious disadvantage against its much bigger siblings in trying to get food.

In watching these chicks I’ve come to the realization that song birds grow fast! At 6 days old, the 3 oldest chicks are easy 3 times the size they were when they hatched out. Of course, they have to grow fast since many birds migrate and they only have a short amount of time to put on weight and build strong enough feathers to help them on their journey. While Northern Flickers aren’t migratory, at least not where I live, they also have a short window to mature and become independent before the winter months.

Mom and dad have been sharing feeding and brooding duties over the last week. While it’s difficult to tell what’s on the menu, a Northern Flicker’s diet is primarily made up of ants (that’s one good reason to leave that ant colony in your backyard alone instead of dousing it with toxic chemicals). As soon as mom or dad’s shadow appears at the nestbox’s entry hole, the chicks perk up and start loudly chittering. It’s been said that this chittering sound is meant to imitate the sound of a hive of bees in order to deter predators from raiding the cavity.

Nipping it in the butt
The female Northern Flicker nips at the cloaca of one of her chicks to prod the chick to defecate. Photo by Jamie Simo.

One interesting thing I had never seen before setting up this bird cam occurs shortly after the chicks have been fed. The parent pokes or nips at the chicks, especially their hindquarters. It took me a bit to realize that this nipping was meant to prod the chicks to defecate. Because Northern Flickers and other cavity nesters live in an enclosed space and the chicks can’t easily relieve themselves over the side of the nest, the cavity would soon be overwhelmed by feces if there wasn’t a way to dispose of them. Therefore, the parents will solicit the chicks’ feces and then either consume the fecal packet or fly it away from the nest.

That’s one way of nipping the cleanliness problem in the butt…er, bud!


Oh Baby!

When I tuned into the Northern Flicker stream this morning, I was in for a big surprise: the first chick had just hatched not an hour before. Two more chicks hatched in quick succession and now there are 3 squirming pink, rubbery babies in the box!

The female Northern Flicker feeds her chicks. Note the white egg tooth on the chick she is currently feeding. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It seems a little early for the chicks to have hatched given that the last egg was laid on May 23rd and, on average, it takes 11-12 days to incubate, but that IS an average after all. I was expecting the first chick on Friday, but what a way to get through the middle of the week!

The most prominent feature of the new chicks is the big white egg tooth on their beaks. The egg tooth is a hard structure that allows the chick to break through the shell of its egg since its beak and claws are pretty weak and ineffectual at this stage. Most birds and reptiles have an egg tooth, but it falls off or is reabsorbed by the animal soon after hatching.

There are still 3 eggs left to hatch in the nest, but I thought I saw a tiny hole or “pip” in one of them so there may be another chick already on the way!