Chicks that can’t fly

Each spring the bird realm is enriched by new avian lives. Watching hatchlings grow into nestlings grow into fledglings is fascinating. Spectacular changes rush the newborns into adulthood, and before they can realize it, they are on their own. The young we sight are those who were lucky and strong enough to survive the harsh stages of their early existence. The toll of those who perish at the hand of natural or man-made evils goes mostly unnoticed.

During my short time observing breeding great and blue tits (a few nests in the springs of 2014-2015) I noticed a recurrent evil: some young’s unability to fly despite seemingly healthy, functional wings. It is absolutely normal for fledglings of many bird species to leave the nest before they can fly, a skill they acquire within days. However, when this unability persists, in stark contrast with the development of the rest of the brood, it becomes a disability and jeopardizes the chick’s survival.

Most great and blue tits I saw fledge could fly immediately or within a few hours from leaving the nest. Encountering individuals lacking this essential character 5, 7, even 10 days later therefore called my attention and I thought it worthwhile recording.

(1) LIVELY & HUNGRY / Bayreuth, Germany – June 2015

I was busy when the blue tit nestlings raised in a natural tree cavity next to my building fledged. From my window, I heard them begging for food and spotted one without closely following the events. As I later went out for an evening walk, one of the chicks was resting on the concrete against a car tire 50 m from my porch, a terrible location to spend the night.

It’s unusual for blue and great tit fledglings to remain on the ground: their instinct tells them to quickly reach high tree branches. Besides, the bird’s right wing was bloody and hanging low, so I picked the chick up for a check.

The baby didn’t seem to suffer and the bleeding had stopped, but it was almost dark and the bird looked snoozy, so I prefered to keep it overnight for safety. I knew the parents would be closeby in the morning.

The chick started begging for food at 6 am the next day. Cat food was immediately accepted and quickly invigorated the young who looked healthy besides the bad wing. All it cared about was to see its parents, so I placed it on a small branch secured on the window frame, above my busy bird feeder.

The chick called eagerly and before long its parents came to feed it despite my proximity since they were regulars at my bird feeder. Soon enough, the minuscule bird had gathered enough energy and motivation to abandon my 3rd floor window: it bravely jumped off and glided over 20m or so to land on a branch.

Sadly, my daily checks revealed a persisting unability to fly and I often found the chick directly on the ground. Since it could only hop from branch to branch, its technique was to reach the top of a bush or small tree and then make the best out of a jump from that elevation. This was unefficient and in fact the chick never managed to leave the bush patch across from my building.

On the sixth day, the blue tit chick was hunted and killed by an Eurasian jay. I blame this mostly on the chick’s disability: since it couldn’t follow its parents like its siblings, it had to be particularly conspicuous to get noticed and often called from high, uncovered branches. It is no surprise that local jays, which are very active in my neighborhood, eventually managed to locate the helpless chick.

(2) LONELY & ADVENTUROUS / Bayreuth, Germany – June 2015

This section is related to a previous article: Jay the ripper.

Ten days had passed since the great tits that nested in the lamp post beside my building fledged. Though the parents daily came to my window feeder, I couldn’t keep track of their whereabouts and see them attending their young; neither did I find out whether the chick I rescued eventually made it.

As I walked away from my building, I heard a chick calling from the bushes around the lamp post. It was a single voice, which I found curious since healthy young great tits keep together at this stage of their development and generally beg for food in concert.

I knew the chick was from the lamp post brood when the mother came to feed it—she has a distinctive appearance—and wondered where were its siblings. Then I realized the young was unable to fly. Either the other babies were nearby (though they should have been chasing their parents in this case), had been weaned or had all died (unlikely). In any event, both parents spent a considerable amount of time nurturing their disabled one.

This great tit family seemed to be cursed: as if the deadly Eurasian jay attacks that killed at least three of their young wasn’t enough, one was now handicaped.

The chick was eager to move around and did its best to explore the area, but being aware of its limitations it would remain hidden in the same spot for many hours, even a whole day, waiting for its parents to come. It must have been distressing for the fledgling whose normal behavior should have been to fly and follow its parents from tree to tree.

I managed to locate the chick three days in a row, then lost it, and unexpectedly found it again. I finally lost track of it for good on the 5th day.

What are the chances of survival of a fledgling that cannot fly? I suppose very low, 15 days is already impressive. The parents would soon stop feeding it because it is the natural cycle, leaving their young to forage on its own and exposed to the danger of hopping across busy paths/roads rather than flying over them to access new areas. Besides, rather than flocking together with other juveniles to forage and explore the neighborhood as is habitual, the chick would be isolated.

A few days later, the parents were already busy building a nest in another lamp post and I could only hope the chick would miraculously gain the ability to fly, sooner rather than later.

(3) SOCIAL & CALM / Paris, France – April 2014

As I passed through the Jardin du Luxembourg last spring, I spotted a great tit chick on the side of a busy path. People were rushing to work and no one seemed to notice the minuscule fluffball. The bird held still with closed eyes, neither trying to hide or call for food. For a while, I sat down and watched it from the distance.

The young soon started hopping around timidly, stopped at the base of a large tree and repeatedly jumped against the trunk without success since it couldn’t fly yet. For the most part, the bird remained still and quiet. It might have been a nestling that fell off the nest a day or two early because during my 2h watch I never saw/heard another chick and the parents never came to attend their young. Besides, though the chick looked fully feathered, it had little down underneath to keep it warm and I could often see it shiver despite the warm spring sun. This is what decided me to pick it up.

Somehow, the chick had no fear of humans and promptly asked for food despite the change of environment. It would take anything from cat food, little insects, cheese and small banana pieces which it demanded every 20 min from dawn to dusk.

After two days spent indoors, I started taking the young out in the garden daily. The bird was sensitive to temperature variations and would often look lethargic during cool or humid times, but otherwise be dynamic, acting like a proper fledgling. It hopped clumsily on the ground and loved to preen itself thoroughly. Often though, the chick did not care to go anywhere, apparently satisfied to just be, wherever that was. It never really managed to hop off the ground or fly at all, only glide from a high point down.

Oddly, I hardly saw any improvement in the seven days I had it.

The chick never put on much weight either despite a filling and, I believe, balanced diet. Clearly, something was wrong with the bird. Sadly, the chick died on the 7th night without ever really knowing what it was like to fly.

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