Rain and Birds


Rain, rain and more rain. Oh yes, and snow in the mountains. Must be June in Montana.

While all that moisture is good for fish, it can wreak havoc on land based critters, like birds.

When it rains, like it has lately, we sit inside, grumble, and maybe complain about the corn in the garden not sprouting. But we’re warm and dry.

Picture a bird on a nest. By now most birds have hatched their young, yet depending on the species, those young are not adults, cannot keep themselves warm and could die from a prolonged wet and cold spell.

Ground nesting birds, like pheasants on the prairie and juncos in the forest, may have it toughest in a deluge. At least for tree nesting birds, such as robins and orioles, when it pours their nest is off the ground.

No matter the bird, each species has its problems and dangers during nesting: predators, weather, humans and their pets.

Take our state bird, the western meadowlark, a ground nester, which typically has a nest containing three to seven eggs. About half of those eggs will survive to become birds and learn to fly (fledging), which happens when the bird is approximately two weeks old.

meadowlark nest kd (2)

Newly hatched western meadowlarks in a ground nest face many obstacles. Photo by Kristi Dubois, FWP.

Even if they reach the fledging stage, many small birds, such as chickadees and yellow warblers, have trouble surviving the first two years of life. Medium sized birds, like robins, can live four to 10 years or more.

Because songbirds live short, perilous lives, everything is compressed.

Yellow warblers, which summer here and winter in Mexico, arrive in mid- to late May in central Montana. They breed and the female will start to lay eggs by, say, June 1. She may lay five eggs, one a day. Then, she sits on (incubates) them for about 10 days, till June 15 or so. After which they all hatch out, pretty much at the same time.

In another 10 days, about June 25, those young birds have fledged. Think of that in human terms; from conception to a teenager in less than a month.

In that short time span, lots can go wrong, like wet and cold weather that destroys the nest and kills the young. Depending on when that happens, the parents may renest, or skip it and try again next year, providing they are still alive.

If their first nest attempt fails, migratory songbirds will renest, even if their eggs have hatched, but generally not past the end of June.

Prairie game birds – Hungarian partridge, sharp-tailed grouse and pheasants – have a different nesting strategy. All three are ground nesters, and each species lays lots of eggs, from 10 to 15 eggs per nest.

All three incubate their eggs about 23-24 days, and all three will renest if the nest is destroyed, though usually not after the eggs hatch. Chicks that die from a wet, cold snap in June (look out your window) or a bad July hailstorm will not be replaced that year.

Pheasants are more likely to renest than Huns or sharpies. Another thing about renesting, the number of eggs in the second, or even third, nest will usually be fewer than the first attempt. And the later in the summer chicks hatch the less their chance of survival by the fall.

So grumble if you will about June’s wet weather, but we really don’t have that much to complain about.