Spring was off to an early start in 2019. For the plants of Southern California, spring actually starts with the first rains of winter which begins their growing season that continues through the calendar spring. The birds can get a quick start as well. The California thrashers have a breeding season from December to June with March through May being peak times. The spring birds started arriving a few days before spring officially started, and the thrashers were feeding hatchlings by March 24th. They would have laid the eggs two weeks previous to their hatching. How do I know that they had nestlings? As soon as the chicks hatch the parent birds start stacking worms in their beaks to take back to the hatchlings rather than eating the worms on the spot (this is true of most birds gathering insects or other items for their youngsters).
One exception to stacking food that I have noticed is in the Bewick’s wren’s behavior. However, I was feeding them giant mealworms, thrown out to them, and that is a lot for a small wren to handle. I also put out dried mealworms in little dishes close by the table, along with small pieces of walnut that I tossed out, for all the birds. Once all the eggs hatch there can be lots of mouths to feed and then the real stacking starts!
Of course, California thrashers, shown above, have quite the advantage with their long, curved beaks. Their beak also enables them to quickly dig deep holes in the ground when searching for food. These holes can look a lot like very little, miniature bomb craters a couple of inches deep.
Another thing that heralds in spring, besides feeding young, is the arrival of our summer birds coming back to do their breeding. One of the earliest to arrive seems to be the orioles. They showed up at the hummer feeders on March 19, 2019 which prompted me to immediately put up my oriole feeders.
The thrasher’s first fledgelings showed up on April 6th. At this stage the parents were still feeding them. It actually takes awhile for a lot of young birds to learn how to use their beaks properly. They will eventually try to pick up a dried worm and try to adjust it in their mouth which results in the worm falling out. I have noticed bluebird fledgelings opening their mouths too wide, as when the parents are stuffing in food, when they are trying to position the worm for swallowing and the food drops out because of their lack of technique. It is quite humorous to see! Mom bluebird will then pick up another worm and give it to them. If they drop that one she picks up another and eats it herself to show how it’s done. One of the interesting things with the thrasher pair is that I got to know which sex my thrashers were. Male and female California thrashers look alike, however they have distinct mating habits. I knew who was who behaviorally because of how they feed with me; however I did not know their sexes.
Slasher would come and take a live mealworm from my hand and Dasher would not, although he came in close. When their first brood fledged both thrashers were feeding the brood. After a couple of days Slasher stopped coming around, and Dasher was feeding the fledgelings by himself. That is common behavior for thrashers. The male will feed the first fledglings while the female starts the next batch. That means that Slasher was now sitting on the eggs of the second brood. She was the female. Within a couple of weeks Slasher was back helping feed the second brood.
We had lots of other birds that were feeding young this spring. The California towhee, Tow-Tow II, Buddy the Bewick’s wren and its mate, the House wrens and a pair of Spotted towhees were all catering to young. A few came and took food from my hand on the table and some I threw out food to. The Bewick’s wrens were coming in and hauling off single worms for their babies. The other birds would come in very close to receive their toss outs of nuts or worms.
The House wrens, the male of which had been singing away all spring, chose a nesting box under the eave of our kitchen door porch. It was a little strange that the House wrens did not notice the other birds feeding or the food that was put out. Never once did they partake. Lots of birds have discovered the food by watching the other birds eating from the dishes, just not them–how different.
The first thrasher brood fledged on April 6th, the day before the White-crowned sparrows left to go north to do their breeding. A Pacific-slope flycatcher came back for the summer on the 12th of April. On the 16th of April, I had a House finch sitting on eggs underneath our carport. That did not last long, however, as a California scrub jay destroyed both eggs and nest on the 24th. Tow-Tow II started stacking worms on April 22nd. The fledgeling thrashers of the second brood showed up on April 16th. Both Dasher, the male, and Slasher, the female had been keeping very busy by this point.
The bluebirds finally got into the act the last week of April when I found two eggs in the bluebird box on the 28th! Last spring the Oak titmice had used the bluebird box as Bonnie and Clyde, the bluebird adults of that spring, stayed in the Silk oak that they had been using the previous two years (see essay “A Surprising Spring”). By May 4th the bluebirds had four hatchlings in the nest! I stopped checking for eggs at this point figuring that I would just count the fledglings when they came out.
Having some hatchlings to feed forced the new male bluebird to quickly learn to come to my hand, as the female was already doing. It was really enjoyable watching the bluebirds at this point because the nest box is less than twenty feet from where we sit in the north yard. By the 21st of May the bluebirds fledged from the Ojai ReTweet up into the higher reaches of thick leaves in the Live oaks. Within less than two weeks the fledglings were feeding with the adults next to us, and I counted five new birds. While all this bluebird activity was going on, both towhee species, California and Spotted, had fledgelings as did the Titmice and both wrens, Bewick’s and House. Within a month the bluebirds had another brood going in the bluebird box. Last year the new male bluebird pushed off the first fledgelings when the second brood was started. This year he did not chase off any of the first brood. Last year the first eggs were Clyde’s and the second set were the new male’s. That could be the difference.
Not only did the first fledgelings get to stay around, they actually helped feed the second brood. I knew that Western bluebird 1st year adults would help their parents in the spring if they failed to nest or had a nesting failure. However, this was fledgelings helping parents and that is a lot different. Eventually the second group fledged as well, and when they finally came in with the parents I counted four more youngsters for a total of nine.
It was very educating to see the various stages of plumage that these birds go through, not to mention the way the fledgeling bluebirds had to learn to use their beaks, just as the thrashers did, as I mentioned previously.
In the above photo Pops is on the left, second from left is a male from the first brood ( notice the rufus color on his sides ), and the other four to the right are from the second brood (no rufus on their sides yet).
This spring started early with the thrashers in March and ended with the bluebirds fledging their second brood on July 16th. It sure was a long and very busy time for both the birds and me. However, every spring brings a feeling of regeneration and growth that is always such a joy to behold each year. To see the earth replenish itself as it does is an awesome experience to watch! I am so grateful that I get observe these happenings around me and share them with you!
Your’s in Nature,