These Limpkin Chicks are only a day or two out of their eggs
“That Mockingbird just hit me in the back of the head!” Jewel complained as she was picking tomatoes in her garden. A thorough search in the depths of her thickest tomato plant disclosed a nest with four eggs nestled in among the tomatoes. For the next few weeks, until the baby Mockingbirds fledged and left the nest, every time Jewel went near the tomato plants, I, as the dutiful and protective husband, had to stand guard behind her with a large piece of card-board which I constantly waved at the outraged Mockingbird to keep it from attacking either one of us.
An electric wire just over our garden provided the perch from which the Mockingbird would launch its attacks. It was uncanny how the bird knew exactly when I did not maintain direct eye contact with it, for without fail, it flew directly at us whenever my attention wandered ever so slightly. Fortunately, like an Iraqi scud missile, the attacks did not do any significant damage.
We followed the development of the baby Mockingbirds from their hatching until one morning when we came to the garden to find them gone and the nest empty. We got glimpses of the young birds occasionally over the next couple of weeks, but they became remarkably good at concealment. There are quite a few Mockingbirds all around our property, so we are confident that the babies did not come to an untimely end.
Baby birds come in two flavors: altricial, or birds that are born blind, featherless and completely dependent upon their parents; and precocial, or birds that hatch with downy feathers, eyes open, able to walk or swim immediately and much less dependent upon their parents. All passerines, or “perching birds,” are altricial. Herons, ducks, shorebirds, game birds, and some raptors are precocial. As you might expect, there are grades between the levels of altricial and precocial development.
As a general rule, altricial babies are in the egg for a shorter period, but remain in the nest, cared for by the parents for a couple of weeks; total time – egg laying to fledging – about a month. Precocial babies are in the egg, being incubated a much longer time, generally about four weeks, but, upon hatching are fully fledged; total time – egg laying to fledging – about a month. For an excellent discussion of the altricial – precocial dichotomy, see http://www.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Precocial_and_Altricial.html.
In the photos, our Mockingbirds, typical altricial babies, always seem to be all mouth (top, left) just a day or two after hatching, but are already developing feathers just four days later (2nd from top, left). The precocial Sandhill Crane chick was photographed on the second day after it hatched and the Limpkin (top) and Piping Plover (left) chicks were all only a day or two out of the egg when these portraits were taken.
One unexpected benefit of the Mockingbirds nesting in our tomatoes was the fact that this year we had almost no tomatoes pecked by birds, a common problem in prior years, because the Mockingbirds, while guarding and protecting their nest also unwittingly guarded and protected our tomatoes. And Jewel survived the tomato season, completely unscathed. Yes, the tomatoes this year were outstanding. (10/6/2012)
(Click photos for larger versions)