Friday, May 16, 2008

Playing God: The next day

I checked the cardinal and her nest when I did chores, rather late this morning. 2 eggs, one big hatchling, no snakes, threw the cat in the barn and gave him some cat food.

I went to show apprentice J. the nest this afternoon. Empty. No mom-cardinal anywhere in sight (or sound).

We looked on the ground below the arborvitaes. J.'s sharp eyes spotted the remaining egg, nestled in dry leaves, intact. It was a dirty pale color with blurry speckles on it, well camouflaged. There was just a tiny hole, typical of the hole a chick makes with its egg tooth. J. said she could see something moving inside (REALLY sharp eyes!).

As I held the tiny egg--less than an inch long--I realized a whole new previous episode to this drama. I don't think the hatchling that we saw in the nest was from an egg that small! I think the cardinal's nest had been parasitizedby a brown-headed cowbird (I saw a pair on the fence on the pasture just a few days ago). These birds lay their eggs in other bird's nests. Their baby hatches a day or two before the host's eggs, and the larger, stronger cowbird chick pushes its hosts' natural children out of the nest so that it gets all the food.

Those cardinal chicks never had a chance. It makes you wonder, how DO so many songbirds actually make it to maturity? It reaffirms my desire to make Pinwheel Farm a welcoming habitat for all species (well, except certain noxious weeds...), to give them a fighting chance of raising their next generation. So that my future generations can enjoy them.

We removed the nest to examine it. What a beautifully crafted little basket! The outer layer was pale, papery dry leaves tastefully blended with soft scraps of weathered white plastic bag. You could hardly tell the leaves from the plastic. Then there was a layer of dark brown, stringy bark, probably from the arborvitae itself. Inside that, a layer of dry grass stems, pale grayish. Finally, it was lined with smooth dry grass roots, all very uniform in size.

I set the egg in the nest, on the desk in the barn, hoping (sort of) that the egg would hatch. Good heavens, what am I thinking? I have time to foster parent a cardinal chick until I can get it to the pros?

Now we can consign the dead trees to the burn pile, before something else nests there.

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