When at last they landed in the grass beside the sidewalk, no longer were they nestlings. At that moment, on the last day of April, Yellow Ribbon's three nestlings became fledglings.
On this first morning in May, the fledglings are encamped beneath a yew bush, gazing incredulously across an ocean of dewy blades of grass. Dazzling yellow sunlight pours from the sky they've never seen before, and chilly dewdrops on green grass glisten rainbow colors. One dewdrop shines emerald green, then in a twinkle it blossoms into daffodil yellow, then the same dewdrop glows blue, then red, then green again...
One fledgling is more curious than the rest. Cautiously it hops from its low perch in the yew bush, and pecks at the sparkling dewdrop. Immediately an unexpected cold wetness spreads across the fledgling's tongue. How unlike the dead hardness of the column's concrete capital and the dusty chaff of the nest is this fresh, new world of green grass and dew!
With the fledglings on the ground, life in no easier for Yellow Ribbon and Cat Chaser. Still the nestlings require nearly all their food to be brought to them. Of course, eventually the young birds will learn ways of finding their own meals, and they'll even learn how to fly. But for right now, these fledglings have a good deal: They can let their parents do all the work, and simply bring the food to them!
As days pass the fledglings experiment with flying, usually making their longest flights when one of their parents approaches with a beakful of caterpillars, for the one who flies closest to where the parent alights usually gets the meal. Sometimes the young even haphazardly forage for themselves.
Eventually the fledglings learn quite well how to feed themselves, and surely could survive on their own if they had to. However, like other young animals growing up, they hesitate to become independent. It's much easier just to let the old folks bring food to them and plop it into their mouths!
If Yellow Ribbon or Cat Chaser, tired of gathering food, fly into the lower branches of the Red Maple tree to rest and preen, they won't enjoy their rest long before one or more fledglings fly there to join them, screaming and fluttering their wings, begging to be fed. Usually, after resisting for a few moments, Yellow Ribbon and Cat Chaser give up and get back to work. Just how does a parent convince its children to be more responsible for themselves... especially when the children can fly to wherever you are and beg, beg, beg?
After helping Cat Chaser feed the fledglings for one week, Yellow Ribbon discovers within herself three powerful and somewhat conflicting urges. First, she is so tired from her parenting that she'd love to just fly away from all her responsibilities. Fortunately for her offspring, her second urge, that one to stay and take care of her family, is stronger than the urge to escape.
Nonetheless, on a certain day Yellow Ribbon finds that a third urge has grown even stronger than the other two. This powerful, irrepressible urge sends her back to her nest to deposit yet another egg, thus starting the whole exhausting nesting cycle all over again. During upcoming days while Yellow Ribbon incubates the new set of eggs, Cat Chaser continues taking care of the first brood.
However, this time, the cycle of nesting events is not destined to proceed as smoothly as with the first brood. Trouble announces itself at dawn on the morning just before Yellow Ribbon arrives atop the concrete column's capital to lay her second egg for this clutch.
While morning is still just a pale glow in the eastern sky, from deep within the shadows of the big Sycamore tree in front of Aiken Junior High, there arises a mysterious, sputtering, flute-like call. A few seconds later, on silent wings, a dark creature much larger than a House Sparrow flutters straight from the Sycamore, whisks close beneath the entrance-porch's ceiling, and disappears into the shadows enshrouding Yellow Ribbon's nest. There's a brief rustling sound, and then two minutes later the dusky bird flies away just as silently as it came.
An hour after the visitor leaves, Yellow Ribbon arrives at her nest and finds in it not the single egg she laid the day before, but two eggs. The new egg is very similar to the other in color and size, but it's a little more rounded. However, Yellow Ribbon is unable to figure out that something is terribly wrong here; she simply yields to the need within her to lay another egg.
The next morning Yellow Ribbon returns and lays another egg, and the next she lays another. On that fourth day of her second laying cycle she begins incubating the nest night and day. On the fifth day she lays the nest's sixth egg. Now her second clutch is finished. And inside Yellow Ribbon still there is no suspicion at all that beneath her an awful problem is developing.
During the first nine days of incubation everything proceeds normally. However, on the tenth day there occurs the first hint that something queer is happening. From time to time she feels very slight movements inside the eggs beneath her. This is as it was during the last hatching. The problem is that in one egg -- the one that's a little more rounded than all the others -- the movement is much stronger.
On the eleventh day, clicking sounds develop inside the roundish egg, but not in the others. In the afternoon of this same day a tiny beak breaks through the shell. By evening, although in the other eggs clicking hasn't even begun, the nestling from the roundish egg is completely hatched.
From the beginning differences are obvious between this nestling and the ones that had hatched in the first brood. This bird is much larger than they. Moreover, a newborn sparrow is naked and pink, but this bird is densely covered with olive-gray down. This nestling is more hungry and it complains more aggressively than a newborn House Sparrow should. However, neither to Yellow Ribbon nor to Cat Chaser does it occur that perhaps this nestling is not their own...
No, this nestling is not any kind of sparrow. The shadowy creature that had entered the nest at dawn two weeks earlier had been a female Brown- headed Cowbird. Of all of North America's different bird species, only the cowbird regularly lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species; it's this continent's only nest parasite.
Usually Brown-headed Cowbirds leave their eggs in the nests of small birds such as flycatchers, finches, vireos, and warblers. However, when nests are hard to find, the female cowbird settles for almost any kind of songbird nest, including those of the House Sparrow.
During Cat Chaser's first visit to the nest after the baby cowbird has hatched, the nestling huddles behind one of Yellow Ribbon's wings. When it hears the flutter of Cat Chaser's wings and the soft patter of his feet upon the concrete, it thrusts its head from behind Yellow Ribbon's wing, peeps loudly, and gapes wide its mouth.
Now, when a newly hatched House Sparrow is ready to eat, it acts in a certain way and has some specific needs. It's weak and naked and the nourishment it needs is food regurgitated from the throats of its parents. This cowbird nestling, however, is strong and well feathered, and it throws open its mouth in a manner that seems to beg for a kind of food Cat Chaser isn't prepared to offer.
Perched on the side of the nest, Cat Chaser feels confused. Who knows what kind of chemistry works inside him right now? Who knows how much he understands of what is happening? Cat Chaser inserts his beak into the nestling's throat and regurgitates a little food, but the nestling doesn't respond right; Cat Chaser flies away and wipes his beak on a maple twig. Usually the "adopted parents" of a cowbird nestling unhesitatingly feed the young bird the food it needs. However, in this nest, for many subtle reasons, the young cowbird will not be fed as much as it needs.
The next day, several times Cat Chaser comes and several times attempts are made to feed the nestling cowbird as if it were a nestling House Sparrow. This robust cowbird nestling needs huge quantities of caterpillars and worms, not half-digested regurgitation. During the first full day of its life it should eat so much that its weight nearly doubles. However, by the end of the first full day of this nestling's life, already it is starving.
When Cat Chaser comes the next day he finds under Yellow Ribbon's wings the cowbird nestling and five pink, naked House Sparrow nestlings. When the nestlings beg for food, the baby cowbird begs much harder, and thus receives more regurgitated food then they; yet this isn't nearly enough. It stays hungry and grows weaker, and neither do the House Sparrow nestlings receive all the food that they need.
By the fifth day the House Sparrow nestlings' digestion system has developed enough for Cat Chaser to begin offering them hard food. However, for the unfortunate cowbird nestling, these caterpillar- and worm-morsels arrive too late.
The afternoon before, during one of Cat Chaser's visits, it had begged so hard that in its enthusiasm it had tumbled from the nest onto the concrete column- top. It had been too weak to return to its nest; desperately it had tried to climb back inside. In one last great effort it had tried to pull itself over the nest's rim; however, it only lost its balance, stumbled backward, and disappeared silently over the concrete capital's edge.
Now the House Sparrow nestlings will develop normally, though always they will weigh a little less than they should, and be a little smaller than other House Sparrows of their age.
Continue to JUNE