As parents, teachers, students, and communities grapple with the complexities of reopening schools, I find myself watching parents and their young out in nature. It’s easy to do right now. They’re all around us. Many people think young birds should be smaller than adults, but the truth is that they achieve adult size sooner than independence, just like my young adolescent grandsons.
Birds especially, grow very fast, though many of our young mammals are getting pretty close to adult size as well. There are exceptions, of course, because life is full of exceptions. Fawns are still smaller than adult deer and raccoon babies are still not as big as their parents. Rabbits are multiplying on an almost monthly basis so there are always a lot of tiny bunnies around. They just probably aren’t the exact ones you saw last week or the week before.
Each species of bird and animal has its own timetable for growth and its own unique style of parenting. Some, like the cowbirds, lay eggs but never parent a chick, even for a minute. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which then raise a youngster that isn’t theirs. If you see a song sparrow being followed by a begging chick larger than itself, it is probably a cowbird.
Some birds feed the young for a week or so after fledging occurs and then leave the young to fend for themselves as they start another family. Sometimes the male will continue to watch over and even feed these young for a week or so, while the female sits on eggs. Mockingbirds, cardinals and robins all do this.
Others, like orioles, hang around a little longer. They don’t nest a second time and in the beginning you’ll see the male orioles with the young. As the young birds grow they look like female orioles and many people assume they have half a dozen female orioles at their feeder when it is more likely they are all immature birds. After a few weeks the male and female adults will leave the young on their own. It is time for the adults to molt their feathers and grow new ones so you may not see them as often. Birds are quite vulnerable when they are molting and will stay hidden except to feed. Even then, they will feed in leafy, protected areas if they can.
Blue jays and crows travel as families for the rest of the summer. The young jays at my house still beg for food and it’s the only way I can tell them from the adults. They still implore their parents to feed them, even as they practice learning the distinctive calls jays are known for.
Crow families can be quite noisy, and the young will still harass the parents when they get a chance. Occasionally you’ll see them fuss at each other but mostly they hunt for food together and get along the same way adolescent siblings get along in the human world. A little bickering here, and a little bossing around there.
Fox kits and coyote pups are now hunting with their families and learning the ways of their kind. Foxes don’t travel in packs and by the end of the summer the young will disperse and find their own territories. Coyotes will stay with their family for a year or two, often depending on their sex. They will help with the raising and feeding of next year’s young before heading out on their own. Young males will leave first, sometimes even after the first year.
The time between childhood and adulthood has always been a difficult time. There is a desire to be independent that conflicts with the comfort of dependence. In humans we call these young people “tweens” and then teens. The tweens are caught between two worlds and often need a gentle nudge to move into the next stage that has more responsibility as well as more freedom.
Our adolescents have years to learn about the world and create ways to deal with the complexities of adulthood. Young birds have only weeks to learn how to navigate the world, maybe months in a few cases. Young mammals, such as chipmunks are on their own almost as soon as they are out of the den. Many of these little guys have no idea of what to be afraid of or what is safe. Some instinctively fly or run at any sign of movement, any new sound. Others will walk right up to you, a trait I’ve often thought doesn’t bode well for future survival.
As you go out and about these next few weeks, keep an eye on the birds and animals you see. Adolescents are everywhere, looking like adults but still needing some help and a safe place to try and perfect their new skills.