Each year, after months of chilled air and wintry skies, we wait eagerly in anticipation of spring, rejoicing when the earth wakes and new life is born. The ground thaws, the days brighten, and animals emerge. An especially familiar symbol of spring is the debut of our summer birds, whom are soon seen with beaks full of twigs, fur, feathers, or grass. Most of us know that these will be used to construct nests for their young, but what happens after the eggs in the nest hatch?
First, we have to understand that there are different development strategies for different birds. Most birds can be separated into two “types.” We have the “fluffy duckling” type, which are born already covered in fuzzy down feathers. Ducks, geese, and most other waterfowl and shorebirds are this type, and they are known as precocial. Precocial birds are mobile right after birth; they are born with their eyes open, and typically leave the nest within two days to seek out water and food with their mother. While reliant on their mother for warmth and to teach them about feeding, they are quite independent shortly after hatching.
Conversely, most of the songbirds (such as the chickadees, finches, and robins) and the corvids (like the magpies, crows, and bluejays) that we see in our neighbourhoods, often nesting in our trees, birdhouses, or homes, are altricial. They hatch from their eggs naked, with their eyes closed, making them very vulnerable and dependent on their parents for the first part of their lives. At this stage, they are called hatchlings - how original!
After a few days, the chicks’ eyes open and feathers begin to grow, often in tube-like sheaths with interspersed down feathers. They are now nestlings, and should still be warm and cozy in the nest - you may even hear them squawking to be fed.
Soon after, they become fledglings, and start to gain more independence. At this stage, they hop out of the nest and spend a couple weeks hopping on the ground, attempting to fly, still relying on the parents for protection and food. Once they are fully feathered and have built up efficient muscles to fly, they mature into juveniles and then adults, and the cycle starts again.
The life cycle of a bird can be compared to that of humans. The hatchlings are like newborn babies, completely helpless and reliant on parents. Nestlings are like children, older but still dependent and fully cared for. The fledglings are like rebellious teenagers who have found their independence but still require their parents to hang around for a little while longer to help them off the ground.
If you see a baby bird and aren’t sure what to do, you can refer to this helpful chart or call a wildlife rehabilitator.