Baby birds are endearing, but just as every new parent learns their baby isn't at all like an adult, baby birds differ significantly from adult birds as well. Birders who understand those differences can better enjoy and help baby birds.
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Baby Birds Have Special Names
A bird is a bird, except when it’s a nestling, hatchling, or fledgling. As baby birds grow, the specific names that refer to the change. These different names denote changes in plumage, proportions, behavior, and care needs that can help birders properly identify baby birds. Some baby birds even have specialized names depending on their species, such as owlet, eyas, or colt.
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Not All Baby Birds Are Born With Feathers
Feathers are vital to birds, but many baby birds are born nearly bald—these altricial babies grow their feathers quickly after hatching, but require more parental care to stay warm and healthy. Precocial baby birds, such as ducks and geese, are born with soft down feathers and can leave the nest to forage just hours after hatching, though their parents still guide and protect them.
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Baby Birds Can Look Very Different From Their Parents
Even the brightest songbirds often have drab, dull offspring, and many baby birds have spotted or streaked plumage as camouflage to protect them from predators until they learn to fly and be more independent. In many species, baby birds first resemble females, no matter what their gender is. For wading birds, chicks are much smaller and duller than their parents, but they grow quickly.
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Baby Bird Siblings May Not All Be the Same Species
Some birds, such as the brown-headed cowbird and the common cuckoo, don't build nests but instead lay eggs in the nests of other birds. Many birds can recognize eggs they didn't lay and will reject them, but in other nests, the intruder birds will grow up with foster siblings of completely different species. The larger foster bird often usurps them for more food and can be harmful to its adopted siblings.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Baby Birds Need a Special Diet
Baby birds need special foods to get the proper nutrition for healthy growth. Their parents work hard to provide extra protein with insects, fish, or meat, depending on the species. Some species, including flamingos and doves, produce crop milk to feed young baby birds, while others, such as shorebirds, teach their babies to forage from a young age, letting them experiment in finding food.
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Bread Is Junk Food for Baby Ducks
Feeding ducks may be a delightful activity for a spring or summer afternoon, but even the best bread is terrible for ducklings, because it does not provide proper nutrition for healthy growth. Furthermore, ducks that become accustomed to handouts may become less wary of humans or more aggressive in seeking out snacks, behaviors that can be dangerous for the birds.
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Babies Leave the Nest Before They Are Grown Up
Parent birds have to get their babies out of the nest before they are mature, otherwise the baby birds won't have the necessary survival skills. There is no room in the nest for baby birds to stretch and strengthen their wings, and being out of the nest gives them practice foraging and learning their surroundings before they're fully grown. The parent birds do stay nearby to care for their chicks, however.
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Baby Birds Often Migrate Alone
Migration is perilous, but many young birds who have never migrated do so successfully by relying on their instincts instead of any parental guidance. By the time they are ready to migrate, adult birds may have already left, and the babies find their way to a different part of their range hundreds or thousands of miles away completely on their own. Even tiny hummingbirds migrate all on their own!Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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You Can Get a Bird's Eye View of Baby Birds
Watching a nest can be astonishing, and using nesting material to attract birds can encourage them to nest nearby for easy observation. Backyard birders who aren't so lucky to have their own resident bird families, however, can take advantage of modern technology to watch the nests of different species in complete comfort, with spectacular views and no risk of disturbing the birds.
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You Can Learn to Identify Baby Birds
Even though babies may not look similar to adults, it is possible to identify baby birds from a variety of clues, including the type of nest, surrounding habitat, breeding range, sounds, and more. Careful observation is necessary, however, but this type of bird identification is a great way to sharpen birding skills. Watching the parent birds is another great way to learn what their babies look like.
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Baby Birds Can Be at Risk Even in the Safest Nest
A sturdy, well-placed bird house or sheltered nest may seem to be an inviting residence, but it can be unhealthy for baby birds if old nests are not removed or if other steps are not taken to protect the nest. High temperatures, predators, mites, disease, and smothering are all hazards that face baby birds. Natural disasters, pollution, and invasive predators also threaten nesting areas.
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Parents Are Protective, but Baby Birds Face Many Threats
Mortality is high among baby birds, and unlike human parents, many bird parents will not do everything possible to protect their offspring. They have to take their own survival into account as well, and if the risk is too great they will abandon their nests and chicks. Savvy birders can take steps such as cleaning bird houses or discouraging feral cats to help so more birds can raise their families safely.