I’m always on the lookout for wildlife, even when I’m driving 100 km/h down a highway. My sister used to always get annoyed at my penchant for pointing out hawks circling overhead or braking suddenly to check out some mergansers along the lakeshore.
Well, the other day, my wandering eyes paid off. I spotted frantic flapping atop a hydro pole and had to pull over. It was definitely worth the stop, as I found myself watching a couple of juvenile Ospreys testing out their wings under the watchful eyes of their parents.
Over and over again they flapped furiously, gaining loft, but holding onto the branches of the nest like a ballerina would a barre. It was truly an amazing moment to witness.
Birds aren’t born knowing how do fly, just like humans aren’t born knowing how to walk. First off, it takes time to develop the enormous pectoral muscles needed to create and sustain the thrust required to get them off the ground and keep them in the air. Although most species lighten the load with hollow long bones and lungs that extend into air sacs throughout much of the body, the muscles responsible for flapping their wings make up 25-35% of a bird’s mass. These take time to develop; how much varies from species to species. In Osprey, it’s nearly two months.
During that time, they practice, flapping and fluttering awkwardly and sometimes falling altogether. In some species, parents encourage the process by landing farther and farther from the nest with each food delivery, forcing their offspring to come out of their safe haven.
That fragile period in a bird’s life known as fledging is a bit of a behavioural tug-of-war between the demands of the young and the desires of the parents. It’s really not all that unlike human parents trying to get their grown up children to move out. Young birds don’t really want to leave the nest. I mean, why would you? You’re relatively safe, cozy and mom and dad bring you food several times a day. Sure, it gets a little cramped being crammed in there with your siblings and your room isn’t always the cleanest, but you don’t have to go out and work for your food. What’s not to love about that?
The thing is, parent birds need a break by the time young are ready to fledge. They can lose a significant amount of their body mass as a result of the energetic demands of feeding and protecting their offspring. Some species still have time in a season to raise a second brood, potentially doubling their genetic payoff. So, they want to get the kids off and into the world as soon as possible. Scientists have been studying this clash of wills for a long time now, measuring the costs and benefits on both sides of this ‘parent-offspring’ conflict.
When that conflict is resolved depends a lot of the species. Small songbirds usually only spend a couple weeks in the nest and then another couple of weeks following mom and dad around, figuring out how to feed themselves, but still begging for a handout whenever they can. For raptors, the period is much longer; osprey can take up to 17 weeks to become independent. It takes time to learn the art of hunting your own prey.
Young raptors learn by watching and again, through practice. I’m sure that for each generation of raptor there are mice and fish out there who’ve had a few years shaved off their lives from the terror of a near miss by a rookie owl or osprey careening towards them.
Still, they eventually get it right. They have to; at some point, mom and dad decide that they’ve invested enough into this generation and cut the chord. Because, regardless of the species we all must stand on our own two feet.