BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
Parents know that adolescents can sometimes be difficult to manage. But this might be some consolation: When it comes to problem children, human teenagers can’t hold a candle to fledgling tri-colored herons.
During the height of the nesting season, the natural wading-bird rookery in St. Augustine, Florida’s Alligator Farm supports close to one thousand nesting birds. It’s all quite counterintuitive, really. Directly underneath the pretzel-twisted branches of mangrove clusters festooned with hundreds of overcrowded bird nests are hundreds of ravenous American alligators, sitting with their jaws agape ready to eat any misfortunate chick that happens to topple off and slip into the water.
Why do these birds choose to nest directly above hordes of hungry alligators? Surely they could find suitable nesting trees elsewhere that don’t pose this sort of extreme jeopardy. Truth is, the alligators actually benefit the nesting birds by keeping tree-climbing, chick-chomping villains like black rat snakes and raccoons away from their precious offspring. So, multiple generations of the same birds return year after year to these gnarled nest trees where they were hatched and fledged.
It’s amazing how life in the wading-bird nest parallels life in the human home. When the chicks first hatch, everything is fairly routine and comfortable. The tiny, helpless baby birds are just cute little balls of fluff, albeit with feathers askew and skin bumpy. Then the mother bird starts feeding them by regurgitating chunks of half-digested fish and watches with avian satisfaction while her little charges fight and claw to get their beaks around the stinky mess she has just deposited.
In the tri-colored heron world, things change really fast. Within a couple of weeks, the once frail and tender chicks are sporting hefty topknots like so many punk rockers. Their piercing yellow eyes scream, “Don’t you dare even think about messing with me!” as they spend their day standing on the edge of their nest and flapping their wings while squawking and lashing out with their sharp beaks at any other bird that comes near—including their own siblings.
Then when one of the adults arrives with food, all the siblings immediately mob the parent. The nearly full-grown chicks grab him with their beaks anywhere they can—foot, wings, neck. But the most sensational action occurs when one of the chicks grabs the parent’s beak and starts twisting with all its might trying to squeeze the food out of his throat. It seems clear that the chick would gladly twist the adult’s head off if it meant that more food would be available.
In comparison, human teenagers are a breeze.
A trio of juvenile tricolored herons ravenously awaits the return of their parents and some healthy meals of regurgitated fish. (Photo credit: Copyright Budd Titlow/NATUREGRAPHS)
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.