Toad in the Hole

June 21, 2004

Li'l Beggars

One interesting bit about this time of year is that lots of birds have fledged at least the first batch of chicks. The adolescents of altricial species, in various stages of development but all on the wing, make it easy to find the birds. They generally have only the barest clue about how to get food, including food that's directly in front of them. They seem not to have the neurological wiring connected, quite, to respond to hunger by picking up food, never mind actually catching it. Hunger still cues the holler-for-food-and-open-beak reflex.

They follow their parents around, begging loudly, and you can generalize a bit even between species about what the begging call sounds like. It's almost always irritating, shrill, constant, and whiny. "Daaaaad! DAAA-aaaad! DEYAAAD! Daaaaad! Hey Daaaaad!" You can hear the subtext: "Gimme the CAAAAARRRRR keys, huh Dad, huh Dad?? PLEEEEEEEze?" The kids look frazzled because they're barely fledged and often still have that broad nestling gape; the parents look frazzled because they are.

One interesting exception we saw in Sibley park a few weeks ago was a couple of wrentits with one chick, in the bare lower stems of a coyotebush by the path. Wrentits can be quite easy to see if you're lucky, and impossible otherwise. They're cryptic and skulky, but like rails they seem to assume that you can't see them if they act normally. Most of the time they're right, and when you can see them they're in the middle of some impenetrable brush anyway.

This chick was clearly begging -- following persistently, doing the stereotype bird beg: wings down and fluttering, tail cocked -- but in complete silence. Never a peep out of anybody. Now there's a complete and hardwired strategy of inconspicuousness.

The golden eagle pair was still there, by the way, hanging out on the antenna tower. So was the maze someone lined out in the quarry digging where we got married. Also rufous-crowned sparrows (with begging young, too) and lazuli buntings and a flock of white pelicans gliding over, catching a thermal, sailing off to the South Bay.

Posted at June 21, 2004 07:49 PM


That's really interesting about the silent begging wrentit chick. I wonder how many other passerines do this?

Posted by: Pica at June 22, 2004 05:36 PM

Damned few, I suspect -- though of course the ones that are silent would tend to be less noticed. Wonder if I could get Stallcup or somebody to opine on this.

Posted by: Ron at June 23, 2004 04:40 AM