Nestling ID crowd sourced

Two nestlings were photographed by Matthew Gill Aug. 6, 2019, at a well pad near Greeley, Colorado.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Sept. 15, 2019, “Nestling ID benefits from crowd sourced help.”

By Barb Gorges

            Cheyenne resident Priscilla Gill emailed me a bird photo that her son, Matthew Gill, took Aug. 6. Could I identify the birds?

            Digital technology is wonderful. Thirty years ago, I would get phone calls asking for ID help (and I still do) but it can be difficult to draw a mental picture. I must figure out how familiar with birds the callers are so I can interpret the size and color comparisons they make.

            At least with an emailed photo, the ease of identifying the bird is only dependent on the clearness and how much of the bird is showing. In this case, the photo clearly showed two little nestlings so ungainly they were cute. They were black-skinned, but all a-prickle with yellow pin feathers and had large, lumpy black bills. They were nestled on top of a platform of sticks balanced high up on the pipe infrastructure at a well pad.

            Those bills first made me think ravens. However, the nest was near Greeley, Colorado, where ravens are rarely seen.

            Digital photos are easy to share. I forwarded the photo to Greg Johnson, my local go-to birder who enjoys ID challenges. But after a couple days without a reply, I figured he was somewhere beyond internet contact, so I sent the photo on to Ted Floyd, Colorado birder and editor of the American Birding Association magazine.

            He had no idea. No one has ever put together a field guide for nestlings. Julie Zickefoose comes close with her book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest” (my review: https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2016/05/30/watching-one-bird-at-a-time/), where she sketched nestlings of 17 species at regular intervals.

            Ted suggested I post the photo to the ABA’s Facebook group, “What’s this bird?”

            Meanwhile, Greg was finally able to reply: mourning dove. They only have two young per nest, and they build stick nests.

            By this time, I had joined the Facebook group and was starting to get replies. It’s a little intimidating—there are 39,000 people in the group.  There were 13 replies and 37 other people “liked” some of those replies, essentially voting on their ID choice.

I was surprised to see a reply from someone I knew, my Seattle birding friend, Acacia. Except for the person who suggested pelicans (based on the enormous bills), the replies were split between mourning dove and rock pigeon. I was most confidant about the reply from the woman who had pigeons nest on her fire escape.

            On reflection, “pigeon” seemed to make more sense, and Greg agreed. Pigeons are known for adapting to cities because the buildings remind them of cliffs they nest on in their native range in Europe and Asia. It seems odd to think of them nesting in the wild, but there’s a flock around the cliffs on Table Mountain at the Woodhouse Public Access Area near Cheyenne. Mourning doves and Eurasian collared-doves, on the other hand, are more likely to hide their nests in trees.

            But birds can sometimes adapt to what we humans present them with. Short of following the nestlings until they can be identified via adult plumage, or comparing them to photos of nestlings that were then followed to adulthood, we can’t say for sure which species they were.

            Out there in the open, did these two make it to maturity? I wonder how easy it would be for hawks to pick off both the parents and young.

            Here in Cheyenne at the end of August, I’ve noticed the field by my house has gotten very quiet at ground level—virtually no squeaking ground squirrels anymore. However, many mornings I’m hearing the keening of the two young Swainson’s hawks probably responsible for thinning that rodent population. The youngsters and parents sit on the power poles and watch as my friend Mary and I walk our dogs past.

            The two kids have even been over to visit at Mark’s and my house. One evening while out in the backyard I happened to look up and see the two sitting on opposite ends of the old TV antenna that still sways atop its two-story tower. That gives new meaning to the term “hawk watching.” They leave white calling card splats on the patio so I know when I’ve missed one of their visits.

Two young Swainson’s hawks find balance on TV antenna tower. Note two house finches also on the antenna. They were very vocal about the large intruders. Photo by Mark Gorges.
Young Swainson’s hawk finds a perch on 50-year-old TV antenna in the Gorges backyard. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Another day, as I did backyard chores accompanied by the dog, one of them sat in one of our big green ash trees, sounding like it was crying its heart out—maybe it was filled with teenage angst, knowing how soon it needed to grow up and fly to the ancestral winter homeland in the Argentinian grasslands.

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