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Sadder than a wet hen

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors May-June 2017issue

Rain, rain, and more rain. Oh yes, and snow in the mountains. Must be late spring in Montana.

While all that moisture is good for fish, it can be bad news for land-based critters, especially birds.

When it rains, many of us sit inside, grumble, and maybe complain about the corn in the garden not sprouting. But at least we’re warm and dry.

Picture a bird on a nest, trying to keep its eggs warm. And those poor fledglings, with their sparse feathers. It doesn’t take much cold rain to send them into deadly hypothermia.

Ground-nesting birds, like pheasants on the prairie and juncos in the forest, may have it toughest of all. In a deluge, their nests can end up underwater. Tree-nesting birds, such as robins and orioles, still get wet when it pours, but at least their nests are off the ground.

Every bird species endures problems and dangers during nesting: predators, weather, and pets.

Take our state bird, the western meadowlark, a ground nester that typically lays three to seven eggs. About half of those will survive predation and cold. Then, about two weeks after hatching, fledglings (young birds able to fly) appear.

Even if they reach the fledging stage, many small birds, such as chickadees and yellow warblers, have trouble surviving the first two years of life. Medium-size birds like robins live 4 to 10 years or more, and larger birds such as sandhill cranes and eagles can make it even longer. Because songbirds live short, perilous lives, everything is compressed.

Yellow warblers, which summer here and winter in Mexico, arrive in central Montana to start breeding in mid- to late May. By about June 1, a female will start to lay eggs, one a day for five days. Then she sits on them for about 10 days, until June 15 or so. They all hatch at pretty much the same time. In another 10 days, around June 25, the young birds have fledged.

Think of that in human terms: from conception to teenager in less than a month.

Even during that short time, lots can go wrong, like wet and cold weather that destroys the nest or kills the eggs or young. If that happens, the parents may re-nest, or give up and try again next year, provided they are still alive. It’s no picnic being an adult bird, either.

If their first attempt to produce young fails, migratory songbirds re-nest, even if their eggs have hatched.

Prairie game birds, such as Hungarian partridge, sharp-tailed grouse, and pheasants, have different nesting strategies. These ground nesters lay lots of eggs, 10 to 15 per nest, and incubate for about 23 days. All three species often will re-nest if the nest is destroyed, with pheasants the most likely to do so. The game birds usually won’t re-nest after the eggs hatch, however. Chicks that die from a wet, cold snap in June or a bad July hailstorm will not be replaced that year.

Another thing about re-nesting: The number of eggs in the second, or even third, nesting attempt will usually be fewer than in the first attempt. And the later in the summer that chicks hatch, the less likely their chance of surviving once the cold weather of fall arrives.

We can gripe about this spring’s soggy weather. But compared to all the cold, wet birds out there, we really don’t have much to complain about.Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly manages the FWP Regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls. Ed Jenne is a Missoula illustrator.

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