An Artist Looks Into the Nest
by Julie Zickefoose
This is a beautiful, beautiful book. I borrowed it from the library same day as Bird Brain, and have spent all this time reading it (with several renewals), very leisurely to absorb and enjoy as much as possible. The author is a very capable artist, who also happens to be licensed to rehabilitate wild birds. She spends a good amount of time raising orphaned songbirds, and thus had the handling skills to undertake this project.
She decided it would be interesting, and perhaps reveal new knowledge, to paint daily life-sized studies of young birds from hatching through fledging. She accomplished this with seventeen different species, presented in this book- and mentioned in the afterward that she was starting on another, so the project continues! Most of the birds were nesting on her own property, close enough to the house she could view them frequently, or in nesting boxes she monitors closely. Others were nesting near the homes of friends or colleagues, who obligingly took daily photographs for her to use. A few birds were orphans she raised, and in several cases she began studying a nest only to find it empty after a few days- the infant birds killed by parasites, or a predator, or the cold- but fortuitously she received orphans of the same species at about the same growth stage as when she\’d left off with the first nest, so could continue the record.
The revelations of these delicate, detailed watercolor and gouache paintings is amazing. I never thought how differently the chicks of various species grow, and I never realized how fast their growth rate is. Some go from helpless, ugly naked hatchling to a bird able to hop and flap among the branches in just ten or twelve days. There are two main reasons for this: getting out of the nest makes the young birds far less vulnerable to predation, and with the quick growth rate, the parents can often raise two or three broods in a season- advantageous when not many make it to adulthood.
I learned so much from this book. Seeing how the babies grow was eye-opening: some develop the feet first, or the wings, depending on what particular skills they need. Some hatch with fluffy down, others completely naked and sprout real feathers sooner. Most are fed high-protein diet of insects by the parents, but some finches eat a purely vegetarian diet (which foils nest parasites whose babies can\’t live on that- cowbirds, cuckoos) and the mourning dove feeds its young babies crop milk. A few times the author helped the babies out by cleaning the nest when it had mites – they feed on the nestling\’s blood and it can kill them. But she found that one bird places spider egg cases in its nest- and when the spiders hatch, they eat the mites.
The birds she studied include: carolina wren, eastern bluebird, tree swallow, ruby-throated hummingbird, chimney swift, house sparrow, eastern phoebe, carolina chickadee, european starling, northern cardinal, prothonotary warbler, tufted titmouse, indigo bunting, mourning dove, house finch, house wren and yellow-billed cuckoo. Lovely to read of the daily observations, the growing awareness of the infant birds to their surroundings, the little incidents with raising orphans. There is so much- I can\’t in any way share all the details- you\’d have to read the book! I remember some time ago reading another book that focused on nests of birds, by Joan Dunning, and now I want to borrow that one again so I can compare what I learned from the two.
Rating: 5/5 336 pages, 2016