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Slices of Life - Life and death in the backyard

July 5, 2013
Jill Pertler - Columnist , Dysart Reporter

The sky may not be falling, but in my backyard, baby birds sure are. They are tumbling from their nests like a hot pair of dice during and even hotter game of craps.

My son found the first fatality in the grass near the trunk of a spruce tree, where robins inhabit a nest above. Baby bird lay orange belly up - dead on impact. We buried him in the garden so he can fertilize the soil. Rest in peace baby bird.

We found bird number two in a similar fashion: lying on his back at the base of a tree. This bird was a starling with feathers not yet formed. He, too, is resting in peace in the garden.

Happily, the third baby bird we spotted on the ground this year was not dead. He was alive and sitting in the middle of the road, which was not the safest place (ask any dead skunk). When we returned to check on him minutes later, he'd bird-hopped to the relative shelter of the grassy lawn. At least in this location a car wouldn't run him over. Although I realize now cars were probably the least of the little guy's worries.

Bird four was in the driveway, looking like a lost bird. He was covered in downy pre-feathers and flapped his baby wings to establish a sort of flutter fly that lifted him a few feet off the ground.

The abundance of baby birds falling and flutter flying away from the safety of their nests made me wonder about what was happening in my backyard. I did a little research, and it turns out the situation isn't uncommon or accidental. On rare occasions, it may even involve murder, or in this case, birdacide.

Nature is a harsh, albeit practical, entity. Newborn chicks without feathers or any chance of survival - like the first two dead birds we found - do not usually fall from their nests; they are pushed. This can happen accidentally, when babies jostle for food. Other times, a bird may be born with a genetic imperfection incompatible with life. A mother bird may push the dead chick out to make room for her growing brood. Or, in some preemptive cases, she may not wait for the chick to take its last breath before giving the heave ho.

Turns out, the little-bit-older, flutter-flying baby birds we saw probably were not pushed, nor did they fall. Fledglings leave the nest voluntarily a few days before they are skilled flyers to allow their parents the ground-oriented opportunity to teach them to hunt, forage and avoid neighborhood predators.

It's a cold cruel world in my backyard, and we haven't even touched on the fact that I live with two cats. Baby birds and cats are not a harmonious combination. Experts advise keeping cats inside when baby birds are about. Duh. However, anyone who's owned a cat understands no one really ever owns a cat - or tells any cat what to do.

I could pretend to be perfect and promise you our cats never disturb the robins in the backyard, but in all honesty that would be a bunch of (well) bird crap. Our cats sneak out on occasion, and when they do the adult birds go on super-mega squawk and chirp alert. They swoop and dive-bomb the felines, whose aloof attitude of superiority makes them unaware they are on the receiving end of any sort of avian disrespect.

Speaking of respect, I've developed a new sense of it for our fine-feathered friends. It isn't easy being a bird - in my backyard or anywhere else. Baby chicks must flutter fly through a gauntlet that includes neighborhood cats, genetics, their own siblings and even parents. According to the Audubon Society, only 30 percent of young songbirds survive the first year of life. That's less than even odds.

Talk about a crapshoot.

Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, playwright and author of "The Do-It-Yourselfer's Guide to Self-Syndication" You can read more columns at the Slices of Life page on Facebook.



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