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Tue, Feb. 25

Birds build nests in the funniest places

This week at the bird store I've been hearing lots of interesting stories from customers regarding recent bird nesting activity. I had a gentleman with a quail nest under his lawn mower, so he can't mow the lawn. (Darn!)

I also heard of a family of birds who have set up their home in a newspaper tube. A customer who is house sitting for a neighbor mentioned quail nesting in a potted geranium plant. Another customer has a Say's phoebe's nest on a light fixture in his entryway – a common practice for this species. The most frequent nester in highly visible locations is that of house finches, which often build their nest in hanging flower baskets, wreaths, and in just about any location in and around porches and decks.

With all of these reports of nesting birds I am frequently asked, "How long will it be before the eggs hatch?" and "How quickly will the baby birds leave the nest?" The answers to these questions depend on whether the species of birds you have nesting in your yard are either precocial or altricial.

When precocial birds hatch, their eyes are open, they are covered with down and they usually can leave the nest within two days, sometimes sooner. (There are four levels of precociality but that is a topic for another day!) Gambel's quail are a great example of a species with precocial young. Shortly after hatching, baby quail are quickly running and scurrying to keep up with their parents. They feed themselves and are fairly independent. Highly developed chicks such as quail spend more time in the egg – the incubation period for quail is between 21 to 24 days. Other examples of precocial birds are ducks, geese, and grouse.

Altricial birds are hatched with their eyes closed, have little or no down, are incapable of moving around on their own soon after hatching, and usually require extensive parental care. House finches are a good example of an altricial bird species, as their young hatchlings are totally naked, blind, and dependent on their parents for food and warmth.

Because the chicks are not well developed at hatching, the eggs hatch more quickly in contrast to precocial young, which are highly developed.

The incubation period for house finch eggs varies from 12 to 14 days.

Other examples of altricial young are hummingbirds, warblers, and sparrows.

The term fledge refers to when baby birds leave the nest. The length of time it takes after hatching until young birds leave the nest varies greatly. Many people have asked this as they want to know when they can stop being concerned about going out on the porch or deck without scaring away the parents, or when they can resume regular watering of their potted plants that have nests. Once quail hatch they leave the nest within hours, and they typically will not return to that location. With altricial young, the period for fledging varies. For example, house finches usually take anywhere from 11 to 19 days from the time the eggs hatch until the young leave the nest.

Many of my customers have been concerned whether they should continue watering their potted plants when there is a nest with eggs. Each situation should be evaluated individually, but for the most part I think it would be safe to water as long as the watering is controlled and directed away from where the nest is built.

If you have questions related to the topic of incubation and fledging time for species not mentioned in today's article, stop by Jay's Bird Barn and I can provide you with this information for any species about which you might be interested. I will also have additional information in the store on the topic of precocial and altricial birds as well.

If you have specific questions which you would like discussed in future articles, you can submit them to Jay's Bird Barn, P.O. Box 11471, Prescott, AZ 86304, or e-mail your questions to

Until next week, happy birding!

Eric M. Moore is the owner of Jay's Bird Barn, located at Watters Garden Center, and has been an avid birder for close to 40 years.

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