Letter From Skunk Hollow: Birth, death and a tale of two songbird broods

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Young phoebes, ready to fly.

As with most subject areas, the field we might call backyard ornithology is susceptible to both the information wealth and weird randomness of Google inquiry.

You can find your way so quickly to an answer, usually a good answer, for almost any question that comes to mind. And that’s a big thrill for this novice birder, who struggles to imagine how people became proficient using old-fashioned field guides.

On the other hand, flitting from topic to topic tends to skip you over some important fundamentals and perspectives. This spring has brought a series of revelations along that line, not all of them cheery.

After the phoebes returned to their nest under our garage overhang, to raise a brood or two for the sixth year running, I began to make a daily check on their renovations with the aid of a mechanic’s mirror on a telescoping shaft.

They added an inch to the rim, turning the flat top into a cup once again, and recarpeted its floor with soft fibers. On May 12 the eggs appeared but — uh-oh — only two of them, compared to the four or five in each previous clutch.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Phoebe eggs


This was dismaying, but only briefly. While I have gathered many an obscure fact about the eastern phoebe — including its status as the first bird known to have been banded, and by Audubon himself — I had no clue whatever as to the pace of their egg production.

It turns out to be daily, more or less, and two days later — whew — the nest held a normal-size clutch of four pearl-pink gems.

Another nest-builder arrives

By this point a second, decidedly non-phoebe sort of nest had appeared on a different side of the garage, a sprawling mess of twigs in an uncovered section of rain gutter. It looked rather like a beaver lodge from below and functioned like one, too, backing up water almost to the point of overflow.

For weeks the species remained a mystery, as I never managed to find a bird on the nest.

I would hear it flee, with an unnervingly loud thrashing of wings, just at the sound of my footsteps and well before I could have been in view. Twice I got just a little closer before it sensed me, but all I made out was a large, dark bird in silhouette as it disappeared into the treetops.

So I began a daily mirror check on this nest, too, trying to remember to sing out “nest inspector” as an advance warning. (I also frankly hoped this bird would grow as comfortable with proximity to us as the phoebes have; they now stay on the nest while we pass within five or six feet.)

On May 18 I found my answer: Four big eggs of a hue so distinctive we’ve named it for the species that produces them.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Robin eggs, blue


Until last month I knew next to nothing about robins except that they sometimes gather in roosts of a quarter-million birds; Google delivered that unforgettable fact one late-winter morning a few years ago as I was trying to determine why we seemed to have about a hundred in view from the kitchen window.

(Oh — and despite what we were all told as children, they aren’t really listening for earthworms when they cock their heads to one side while hopping across a wet lawn. They’re staring, with the eye that’s pointing downward; their eye placement makes their vision monocular.)

Now I’ve learned that their nests are built in a hurry, rarely re-used, and to our binocular eyes can appear “unkempt” in the wording of my favorite book on bird behavior: “The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds,” by Paul Ehrlich, David Dobkin and Darryl Wheye.

Unlike phoebes, with their preference for structures and other sheltered spots, robins build in a wide range of places. Not all of these are well protected, which contributes to an annual mortality rate above 80 percent — rather high even in comparison with songbirds generally. Fewer than half the nests produce any young at all; the birds often try for three broods a year; fewer than one-quarter of nestlings live till winter.

A family vanishes

The first of our robins to hatch looked at a glance — I didn’t want to linger — to be twice the size of a newborn phoebe and rather like a gray lump of spoiled food growing fuzzy mold. It lay in bright sun and didn’t seem to be moving. But over the next few days the other three emerged and the quartet began to take on bit by bit the appearance of birds, albeit scrawny, plucked ones.

And then, less than a week later, they were simply gone.

The nest remained in place, but lying on the deck below it was now the beginning of a second nest. Because the nestlings must surely have been flightless, I worried for a guilt-ridden half-hour that the parents, having grown weary of the nest inspector’s daily check-ins, had relocated the babies.

But robins don’t do that, a variety of experts assured me via Google. The likeliest explanation I can find is that they were eaten by squirrels.

Better fortune for phoebes

There’s a happier story to report with the phoebes.

All four hatched more or less together, pink and fuzzy, and within a few days would respond to any sound I made approaching the nest by shrusting their open mouths skyward, these food-input ports outlined by bright yellow bills.

There may be nothing like a nest of new phoebes to make the visual connection between birds and the dinosaurs from which they evolved. There is nothing cute about them at this stage; from their oversized black eye-orbs to their reptilian skulls and snapping bills, they look like lizards who happen to be sprouting fluff.

Last year I set a small digital camera on a tripod to overlook the nest and captured hours of bird-parenting footage that I’ve yet to learn how to edit into something presentable. But it was fascinating to watch the two-week process from an intimate viewpoint, in almost real time, without risk of disrupting it — the adults sometimes stayed at the nest during card changes.

This year Sallie and I restricted ourselves to one brief up-close look per day. The parent phoebes, pushed off the next by the swelling volume of nestlings, remained mellow about our proximity when we were engaged in normal activity but grew restive if we approached within about two yards of the little ones.

After about 10 days the deck began to collect little black-and-white plugs of bird poop and I knew from last year’s observations that flying lessons wouldn’t be far off. On the 14th day, last Friday, we got ready to go out of town for the weekend and took a last look at four handsome, full-fledged birds sitting stock still and staring steely-eyed at a couple of giant prattling bipeds.

Sunday afternoon the nest was not only empty but filled in flat again with a new layer of grass to smother any parasites. The female phoebe sat atop a nearby tomato stake and watched us unload the car, silent and relaxed, without the little tail pump that’s said to signal a predator that it has been sighted and needn’t waste the chase.

We admired and complimented her for a while, then Sallie hosed off the poop deck as a gesture of welcome for the next brood as I began to assess whether I’ll have to lower the nest platform over the winter. By Wednesday the rim was already an inch higher than on Sunday, and it wouldn’t be unusual for this pair to be with us for another four years.

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