Birding Column: Hummingbird Chicks Fly the Nest

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
March 30, 2004

One day, in the middle of February, I got a tip on an Allen's hummingbird nest that had been built along the side of a house down the street from me in western Bel Air, California. I went over to check it out, and I discovered two chicks in the nest that were being fed by their attentive mother.

The chicks were really tiny, but my neighbor told me that he had been watching the nest already for about two weeks, and that the chicks had begun life as tiny specks. He loaned me his stepladder, and said that I could visit the nest whenever I wanted.

I took full advantage of this opportunity, and I spent the next week perched on that ladder and photographing the development of these chicks until they fledged. I was able to place the ladder about four and a half feet (about 140 centimeters) from the nest, so I had a really good view of the festivities.

The female would return to the nest every 15 to 20 minutes or so. She would jam her beak down into the throats of her gaping offspring, and she pounded her head over and over again into their throats, to be sure that they had received all of the nourishment that she had to offer.

After she fed her chicks, the female would pause and look from side to side, probably on guard for predators but also no doubt nervous at my close proximity. Regardless, she continued to make her food runs throughout the day, and she wouldn't stop until the sun went down over the hills and it started to get dark.

During one of her trips to the nest, I could see very clearly on her beak the yellow pollen that she had collected from the plants that she had visited. This pollen was clearly supplying some important protein for the chicks.

From day to day I could see the chicks getting bigger and bigger. Sometimes one would squeal for his absent mother, and then the other would let loose with a high-pitched cry of lament. Sometimes they would call out together. But most of the time the chicks were silent, probably because their instincts told them that quiet birds didn't get eaten by enemies of various kinds.

I got a kick out of waiting for a half-hour period in the late afternoon, when the sun shone directly on the nest. The reflection in the eye of one of these little chicks was a wonder to behold.

But much as I enjoyed watching these chicks grow, I had to face the inevitability that sooner or later, these chicks would fly off. I couldn't believe that they would just take off one day, after being bound to the nest—but I knew that this would occur.

And it did, exactly a week after I started watching them. It was about 2:00 p.m., and suddenly one of the chicks just lifted off of the nest and flew into the bushes to the west. He perched in the bushes for a few minutes, and then he disappeared. I half-expected him to return to the nest, but this didn't happen. He was gone for good, and his sibling was left alone in the nest.

His mother came back to feed him a little while later, and she seemed to take no notice of the fact that one of her chicks was missing.

The following day the lone chick took up the entire nest. You could see that his fattened body was pushing out the sides of this delicate structure. The nest had been patched together by the mother with plant fibers and spider silk and was camouflaged by bits of lichen on the exterior.

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