Right now North America is bursting with baby birds. Just about all of us on this continent live where young birds are starting their lives. Soon the chicks will be strong and they will fly to a warm winter place. But for now they are usually close by their parents, near to where they were born, and learning how to survive. There are many ways to identify an immature bird; you don’t have to be an expert, you just need to look around.
Pictured here are two examples of a juvenile and adult species: the California Quail and the Western Scrub-Jay. The quail chick (far left) is fluffy with new feathers, streaked, and small compared to the parents (male with black throat, female in foreground). The jay is naturally a lankier type of bird so this species will not be plump and fluffy like the quail; they’re scrawny, however, and have slightly different markings than their parents.
In many bird species the juvenile is smaller than the adult, at least for a short time, and the feathering is often scruffy until all the feathers unfold. Each individual species varies of course, but if you take a look at a bird and see that it has scruffy or sometimes super fluffy feathering, you’re probably on the track of a juvenile. Watching the bird for just a few minutes more usually reveals juvenile behavior.
When they’re first off the nest they are usually with their parents and two common activities are a giveaway that it’s a youth: either they are incessantly squawking in a rather weak voice, or they are conspicuously quivering their wings. Both of these actions are the bird demanding one thing: feed me.
Although a lot of people discover and enjoy these scenes in their backyard, it is prevalent in urban settings as well. I have been in busy cities in a parking lot observing harried adult house sparrows in shrubs feeding their chicks, or blackbirds in trees lining the courthouse dive-bombing passers-by to protect their nesting young.
We are lucky to have so many new birds being born here. I have been in countries that have been so denatured over the centuries that few birds live and breed there anymore. It’s a sad thing to see, and makes you want to notice and encourage the life force of birds.
Juvenile bird behavior can also be very entertaining. In our yard the California quail chicks are learning to take a dust bath. We see it around our dinner time when they are with their parents, heading for their nighttime roost. One of the coveys has teenagers. Following their parents’ example, the teens go to a dusty hollow in the trail and plop into the dust. They frantically shake about fluttering their wings, rocking around, creating a dust cloud. If you don’t know what they’re doing, it looks like they’re in trouble. They do it to bathe, especially during the hot and arid times of year here in California where it doesn’t rain from June to November. Even though we provide water which they also indulge in, the dust absorbs excess oil and mites. The funny part is that they are learning, so they are not very good at it yet. The dust doesn’t always hit their backs, or the teenager accidentally rolls over into another bird.
Another entertaining sight is watching the juvenile hummingbirds. It is common to see adult hummingbirds zoom around. But when they are youthful they zoom around everything including inanimate objects, wasting precious energy on anything they fancy. They have an abundance of energy and a deficit of experience, so they explore parked car lights and the deck umbrella as earnestly as a nectar-filled flower.
If you take a few minutes each day to look at the birds flying around you, you may have the pleasure of watching a gawky inexperienced bird learning to fly, or feed. It’s always a good reminder for any human, no matter what stage of life, that we’re all just learning something new about how to be in this wonderful world.