Sharing my house with baby birds
This little bird is a baby Panama Flycatcher. Mum and dad moved in above the light fitting in my kitchen in April 2012. I live on a little Caribbean island just off the coast of Panama in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro. This short tale is taken from my new book "Paradise Delayed", which is sub-titled "The pitfalls and pleasures (mainly the pitfalls) of Caribbean island life in the beautiful archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama". Life can be challenging and frustrating at times here, but that's part of what makes it so satisfying too. The book tells of the almost vertical learning curve I had to climb when I first moved here. Most of the stories are of trials and tribulations. Sinking boats, defective chainsaws, document forgery and aggressive roosters - it's all there. This little story is one of the unexpected little pleasures that are also discovered on the journey.
Baby Birds (from "Paradise Delayed" by Ian Usher)
Without doors or windows the house was open for a while to a few uninvited wild guests. At night, with a light on, insects and moths would come in, but they were never too much trouble. My most amazing moth visitor had a wingspan bigger than the spread my hand.
During the early days of May a couple of birds began flying into the house. They soon made themselves at home above the light fixture in the main room of the house. The fixture was mounted on a flat piece of wood which was screwed to two of the roof beams. Between the beams they had a perfect little nest-sized spot.
I looked them up on the internet, discovering that they were Panamanian Flycatchers, quite common to the area. They are a pretty little bird with a bright lime green breast.
For a couple of weeks they flew in and out, bringing twigs, working hard on their own construction project, while below them I worked on mine. I stood on a chair one day to have a peek in when they were both away from the house and was impressed by the size of their nest.
One day in June I was amazed to hear tiny cheeping noises from the nest. I climbed up again to look in when the two birds were away, discovering three little chicks in the nest. I hadn’t even realised they already had eggs in there.
It was fascinating to watch how hard mum and dad worked to keep the little ones fed. The one I assumed to be mum was much more confident around me. She would happily come in and out, wherever I was and whatever I was doing. Even drilling and hammering didn’t seem to bother her. Dad was a little bit different, lacking mum’s confidence, often waiting on a tree branch outside until I was out of the way.
One evening, just as I was tidying my tools away there was a “thunk” by the newly built kitchen counter. I went to investigate, and as I approached there was a second thud. In front of me there were two wrinkled little baby birds on the hard wooden counter. They had fallen from the nest, a drop of four or five feet. They seemed to be okay, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I remembered reading somewhere that if the babies are handled they will smell differently to the parents, who may then abandon them.
I decided to try to put them back in the nest using kitchen paper to carefully scoop them up without touching them. The operation was successful and I breathed a sigh of relief when the parents came back as darkness fell, apparently none-the-wiser.
I put a couple of thick towels down on the counter directly beneath the nest to cushion any further falls.
The next morning one of the birds was out of the nest again, having landed safely on the soft pad of towels. Again I scooped it up with kitchen towels, returning it to the nest while the adults were out hunting for food.
Over the next weeks there was a regular rain of baby birds from the nest, each returned carefully when the parents were away. I wondered if I might be doing the wrong thing. Perhaps in the wild only one baby survived? Maybe I was giving the parents an unsupportable workload?
The small, hairless, blind babies grew feathers, developing into amazingly cute copies of the parents. I often studied them before returning them to the nest, and they became quite used to having me handle them.
On a couple of occasions I had been caught red-handed by the mother bird. She seemed unconcerned about my involvement, patiently waiting as I returned a baby to the nest. I was no longer bothering to use kitchen towels to pick up the fallen chicks, and there had been no rejection. I think the mother now accepted me as part of the parental process.
She returned to the nest one day, just as a baby tumbled to the kitchen counter. I was sitting nearby, watching to see what she would do. She flew down to the kitchen counter, looked at the little baby there, then looked at me. I know I shouldn’t anthropomorphise, but her look really did communicate a simple message. “You’re going to have to help me with this,” was my mental translation. She watched calmly as I returned the baby to the nest.
One of the little ones had become very tame, happy to sit on my finger as I wandered around the house. Unfortunately, one night, as I returned it to the nest, it fell and, trying to flap its wings, missed the towel pad. It banged the edge of the counter hard, tumbling to the floor. It looked very stunned as I carefully replaced it again.
I was very sad to find it in the nest the next morning, cold and stiff. The other two were still doing well, however, and a couple of days later the initial flights began.
The babies would leap from the nest and flap frantically, slowly gaining ability to control their flight, but still quite clumsy. I returned from feeding the chickens one morning, confused to find there was only one small bird left in the house. Mum and dad were on the tree outside, chirping encouragement. Perhaps the first one had already left? But I could hear two separate little chirps of reply, so went hunting for second one.
Later that morning, as I replaced the boards, the babies departed with their parents, landing in bushes near the front of the house. I wished them well, sad to see them go, but proud of the small part I had played in the parental process.
Now, almost a year later, I occasionally see a Panama Flycatcher in one of the trees on the island. I wonder if it is one of the babies that shared my house for a while. Perhaps it will be looking for a nest site soon to raise its own babies. I leave the back door invitingly open each day.
They're back! It is early June 2013 as I post this story, and my house guests are back. There are two babies in the nest and they must be getting close to flying now. I extended the wood platform for them when the parents first returned about six weeks ago. So far there hasn't been one incident of a baby falling from the nest this year.
UPDATE - 14th June 2013
I went into Bocas de Toro yesterday to do some shopping, and when I returned one of the baby birds was fluttering around the house. Here is a little bit of video. He flew out the back door later in the afternoon and is now somewhere out on the island. There is still one baby left in the nest, but this morning I can hear wings flapping, so maybe #2 will be heading out today.
I feel like a proud parent!!
UPDATE #2 - 14th June 2013
The second baby is out and about this morning. We've been bonding. Check out the video:-