Summer represents the first opportunity for aeronautical exploration by many newly hatched birds. The development of young birds is truly remarkable, going from egg to flight in just a few months and sometimes even less.
Birds have evolved two basic strategies for getting the young birds out of the egg and able to care for themselves. Many of our songbirds have altricial young, baby birds which are still developmentally immature, nearly featherless, and helpless after hatching. They require one or more adults to feed and care for the young in the nest for a week or two after hatching. By contrast, certain other species including pheasants, waterfowl, prairie chickens, and others have precocial young, where the newly hatched baby bird, covered with down, is ready within hours to leave the nest and begin finding its own food and feeding itself, requiring only general adult supervision and help staying warm during cool weather.
Both strategies have some advantages. By hatching altricial young, birds can minimize the days in the egg, when both the eggs and the incubating adult are vulnerable to predators. Species which hatch precocial young must risk an extra week or two of dangerous incubation time, but can immediately leave the nest after hatching and get to a secure site with abundant food.
Neither altricial nor precocial young can fly immediately after hatching, but both groups of birds grow quickly. Pheasant chicks can make short flutter flights within a week or two of hatching; this helps them escape their many predators. By the time they are fully feathered and about half the size of the hen, they can make longer and stronger flights.
Baby ducks can't fly until they are about eight weeks old, but they can swim immediately after hatching and this swimming ability, combined with their marsh habitat, provides many opportunities to avoid predators. Young waterfowl do flap their wings as they skitter across the water, helping them move more quickly away from danger. By late August, the earliest hatched ducklings are beginning to fly from site to site, while the later hatched ducklings are still too young to fly.
Altricial young such as robins, swallows, and others, are fed in the nest and continue to grow rapidly for many days after hatching. Eventually, they grow strong enough and develop enough feathers that they are capable of fledging, or making their first flight from the nest.
The initial flights of young birds can be comical to watch, but are no game for the birds. The capability of flight is what protects them and allows them to find food and shelter. Young songbirds often teeter on the edge of the nest in the days before fledging, fluttering their wings and testing their ability to counter gravity and distribute their weight back into the nest. Then, suddenly, the birds will fly clumsily from the nest to the ground or a nearby shrub, sometimes landing rather heavily. In those first few days of flight, the birds will struggle to gain altitude and find a low shrub or branch in which to perch. Within a few days, as they continue to grow stronger and more experienced, their flight becomes indistinguishable from that of the adult birds.
Even after fledging, many altricial songbirds are fed by the parent birds away from the nest for a number of days. They depend upon the foraging experience and better mobility of the parent to help them get enough to eat. Still, it is humorous to watch young birds at a bird feeder, with a feast requiring no effort literally in front of them, turn to the side and gape, waiting for mom or dad to pick up a food item and shove it in their open mouth.
Precocial or altricial, small or large, songbird or gamebird, all young birds achieve a remarkable feat: they can go from egg shell to aeronautics in a handful of weeks.
Featured WPA: Johnson Waterfowl Production Area, Big Stone County
The 182-acre Johnson WPA is in east-central Big Stone County, eight miles southeast of Clinton. Twin marshes, one 48 acres and the other about 20 acres, are the central features, bisecting the unit from north to south. The grasslands on Johnson WPA are all former agricultural fields reseeded to grass many years ago.
The unit can receive very good waterfowl use, especially during migration. Access to the unit is often difficult except for high clearance trucks, with the only access provided by narrow lanes on the west and east sides. This year, the FWS is improving the access on one side, smoothing it and placing some gravel on the drivable portion to make it passable for most vehicles.
Just ?1/4 mile west of Johnson WPA is the 282-acre Jorgenson Waterfowl Production Area. Together, the two units create a fine block of habitat in an important landscape for waterfowl and other birds.
For a map of Johnson WPA or any other WPA in the Morris district, go to midwest.fws.gov/Morris.