Last week’s full moon pulled me outside around 10. While absorbing the warmish evening and shimmering light across Possession Sound, I heard the hooting of a Great Horned Owl. Interrupting those soft, melodious hoots was the squawking, demanding call of a juvenile owl begging for food.
Since owls lay eggs as early as January, that pestering owl was likely hatched last February. During the intervening months it has been learning to feed itself. Soon that young owl will have to be self-sufficient. For now it is content to accept a tasty rodent dinner supplied by a parent.
A couple days later I heard similar begging from a juvenile, this time a young Bald Eagle. The full-sized, mottled brown bird sat in a fir tree above the beach at Possession Point State Park calling loudly for its next meal.
Within minutes an adult eagle flew in with a large piece of prey, which it jabbed into the juvenile’s mouth.
On another occasion,
I was aboard the passenger deck of the new Chetzemoka awaiting departure from the Coupeville dock.
I looked out at one of the dolphins, those tall, wooden stacks that guide the ferry into the dock. It held a nest of two gray, juvenile Glaucous-winged Gulls. One juvenile begged persistently for food from an adult standing nearby. The adult stood impassively, as if snoozing in the sunshine.
The young gull, just as large as the adult, assumed a horizontal pose: back level, head forward, with tail and bill straight out. It seemed to say, “I’m so sweet, please feed me.”
All three of these youngsters, the owl, eagle and gull, were as large, if not slightly larger than the adult. They all had more mottled or plain plumage. And they all were still dependent on their parents for food.
Typically we think of baby birds as those fresh, yellow fluff balls that paddle along after mother Mallard. Or featherless baby robins tucked into a nest. These young grow quickly after hatching and within a couple months are feeding independently.
The smallest passerine birds (thrushes, wrens, warblers, swallows and sparrows) mature even more quickly. Once they leave the nest, the young are practically independent.
In some species, the adults jump right back into producing a second batch of babies. An example is the Barn Swallow pair tending their second brood on my back deck.
Larger birds like raptors and gulls tend to have young that take two, three or even four years to mature into adulthood. During that time they change plumage several times, only gradually taking on their adult coloring.
Birders use many terms to describe the stages of transition from hatching to adult. Baby birds still in the nest are called chicks or nestlings.
As the young of larger birds begin to leave the nest and crawl around the nearby branches, we say the birds are “branching.”
Fledglings are any young bird that has recently left the nest. Two and three-year-old eagles and gulls who are nearing the adult plumage are called sub-adults.
Observing adult-juvenile interaction is another joy of birding here on Whidbey. The show goes on most months of the year. It begins in March with the first baby ducks and continues into September and beyond with begging teenagers. Then in October we begin to hear the owls’ mating calls and the breeding cycles begin again.
Frances Wood has launched a new website called “41 Whidbey Places: Our island, our stories.” The site describes special places on Whidbey and the personal stories they hold. Visit 41whidbeyplaces.com to read the growing collection of stories.