The 2008 Nestbox Diary

May - Part 1

The young chicks 

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1 May - 2/3 days since hatching - The start of the month has brought an improvement in the weather, and there was  only the occasional shower, during the morning, followed by a bright and largely sunny afternoon and evening, with the temperature getting up to 15C.

In the Great Tit box the two remaining eggs are still intact and I don't expect them to hatch now. At least it makes it easier for the parents to provide enough food for the remaining seven.

The female spent a lot of time sitting in the nest today. There was a lot of noise (including the sounds of what I suspect was a nail gun) coming from the garden beyond the conifers and I think it caused her a bit of stress a couple of times, so I spent only a short time watching from behind the glass, taking just a few pictures to record the chicks' development.

The Great Tit chicks today


When on their own they spend much of their time in this 'flopped' state, only reaching up with open beaks at the sound of a parent entering the box, or failing that, in response to the chirping prompts that the parents give when a gape isn't forthcoming.

Notice the circular area of taut skin behind the eye which marks the position of the chicks ear drum.


Great Tit chicks, showing a still closed eye and down


This image gives a clearer view of the chick's still closed eye and the mass of down, although as you can see on the chick to the right, most of the head is actually bare.


Great Tit chicks, showing a foot and its claws



This final picture is included because it shows a chicks foot and claws, something that usually seems to stay hidden from my view.





2 May - 3/4 days since hatching - A sunny morning followed by a showery afternoon, but overall a good day for food gathering.

The female Great Tit seemed very wary today so I only spent a short time down at the box,  only taking a few pictures of the chicks while she was away, but they are enough to show just how much visible change they have undergone since yesterday.

Perhaps the most obvious difference is in how the wings are darkening as they show the first stages of feather development.


Great Tit chicks - 2


The wings can be seen again in this shot, but you can also see the feather tracts over the back of a head, along a shoulder and down the back, along the line of the spine.

These tracts are made up of rows of papillae from which the feathers will develop, as will become more obvious over the coming days.


Great Tit chicks - 3


Most of the features in the previous photographs can be seen more clearly here.

Also, look carefully at the chick at the top of the picture and you can see the rows of pale papillae from which the light yellow breast feathers will develop, with dark feathers to each side. Hopefully I'll get a clearer picture of this over the next couple of days.



In this picture you can see the dark papillae on the tops of the heads.



A Great Tit chick with its down feathers


Look closely at this last image and you can see the branched, feathery nature of the down. These feathers do not stop growing, unlike the rest of the feathers that develop which, once fully developed are dead structures.



The Starling chicks are fed

While all is peaceful in the Great Tit box, with the only calls usually being made by a parent trying to get a chick to open its beak, the Starling box is now a noisy place, with the chicks' chirping loud enough to be heard clearly from the other end of the driveway.

Click here to listen to a short recording of them (416KB - 26 seconds) - each outburst starts with the noise of an adult entering the box. There is a muffled squeal as the second adult enters and the first leaves.


The male Great Tit passes food to his partner


And to finish off,  cctv images of the male Great Tit handing over food to his partner. She still spends quite a bit of time sitting on her brood, and if the male brings in food, he has to pass it to her before she then goes on to feed one of the chicks while he looks on.

Tonight it seems that there is another problem with the 'look-down' camera - something to check again tomorrow!


I spent the twenty minutes up to 9pm outside watching for Swifts. Again, there were just three about, and I didn't see them flying low. During the same period, while the neighbourhood was alive with the competing songs of male Blackbirds, the female Starling left the box twice, each time heading for the Hawthorn where she spent time preening rather than searching for food. She was obviously not on the lookout for Swifts!

I also saw several bats, one of which flew low over our shared driveway.


3 May - 4/5 days since hatching - A morning of bright, if hazy sunshine, but with more cloud and the occasional drop of rain as the afternoon progressed - another good day for finding food for the chicks!

Again, the female Great Tit was very nervous and so I didn't attempt to photograph the adults during visits. There is a lot of bird activity in the garden right now, so I'm not surprised that the female is on edge every time she hears a noise. In the short time that I was watching from behind the glass three birds landed on the roof of the box and walked about above us. Judging by the sounds as it took off, one must have been a Wood Pigeon!

The Great Tit chicks today - 1The nest cup is quite deep, and its sides are almost vertical, so even with the use of the mirror there are times when most of the chicks are hidden from view.

At least meant that when I took this picture one of the remaining eggs was just visible. These must really get in the way as the chicks move about in the nest cup.

The Great Tit chicks today - 2



A bit of rearranging and there were more chicks visible for this picture.


The Great Tit chicks today - 3


In this image you can see the dark band of feather papillae running down the spine of a chick. Look carefully and you can see how the band broadens out at the base of the spine, where the tail feathers will develop.


Close-up of top of Great Tit chick's head



You can see rows of papillae either side of the central dark band on the top of the head of this chick.


Close-up of Great Tit chicks - leg and wing




And another chance to see a foot, and the rest of a leg, as well as a wing.



Close-up of Great Tit chick's gape, showing the tongue

Every so often, in response to a noise from outside a hopeful chicks try to be first in the queue with the biggest gape.

In the case of these chicks we are looking down towards the bottom of the mouth and the triangular tongue, a stiff structure containing 5 bones, and with backward pointing papillae at the back of it. These, along with the shape of the tongue help to ensure that food goes just one way.

When a parent pushes into the chick's mouth a caterpillar that appears too large for it to swallow, the parent sometimes has to pull quite hard to extract it again before offering the caterpillar to another chick.

Close-up of Great Tit chicks' gapes, showing the upper palate


In this view of four gapes the chicks are the other way round and we can see the top of the mouth instead, with its split palate, again with rows of papillae. These are soft structures which, like those on the tongue, help to hold and manipulate food back towards the oesophagus.

The Starlings chicks today



In this cctv image from the Starlings' nest you can just make out the cleft upper palates of two of these chicks



During the morning I saw four House Martins flying quite high overhead, and there were more Swifts about. Since I first saw the Swifts on 27 April I have only seen two or three each day. However, this afternoon I counted at least ten flying over the neighbourhood, and I heard the Swift scream for the first time this year.

This evening I've just spent a while outside watching out for Swift activity, and I can now confirm that there is at least one spending the night in my neighbours' roof space, where they have been nesting for the last few years. I saw one go in briefly at around 8.28pm. It left almost immediately but returned a couple of minutes later. seconds later I saw a House Sparrow leave - earlier today I had seen a Sparrow taking a beakful of straw in!

I was relieved to see that the Swift went in without any response from 'our' Starling. She had only just gone back into her box. The noise of the Swift landing and then entering was loud enough for me to hear but the Starling didn't even look out to investigate.



4 May - 5/6 days since hatching - An overcast day, but still mild, with the temperature reaching 20C, so another good hunting day.

A Swift arrives next doorBefore turning to the Great Tits, photographic confirmation of the Swifts' return to my neighbours' loft.

I had only just set up my camera and was expecting a long wait when a Swift made  several close fly-pasts before this Swift landed on the guttering and entered the loft at 7.23pm.

I waited for about ten minutes before coming back indoors, and it hadn't left again when I took the camera off its tripod.

And there was no sign of any Starlings to bother it!


The female Great Tit enlarging the nest cup



In the Great Tit box the rim of the nest cup is now getting a bit ragged as the female gradually enlarges it to cater for the growing chicks.



The Great Tit chicks today - 1


With the cup sides somewhat undermined it was more difficult than ever to get a clear view of the chicks, especially if they are in their usual low profile posture when neither parent is present.


The Great Tit chicks today - 2


In this there is a different view of the spinal band of feather papillae. Hopefully, tomorrow I can get a better view that includes the base of the spine and shows the area where the tail feathers are developing.


The Great Tit chicks today - 3



And a close-up of a head as it darkens.





The Great Tit chicks today - 4

This picture gives us a chance to see how quickly the wing feathers are developing in comparison with the body feathers.

Along side the fist picture on this page I mentioned the ear-drum. Look carefully at just behind the eye of the chick and you can see that some folds have now developed to create an external ear.


A thin caterpillar is offered to the Great Tit chicks



Today I also took a few pictures to record some of the feeding taking place. Here, a skinny caterpillar raises a lot of interest (notice how the chicks can now stretch above the top of the nest cup) ,


A plump caterpillar is brought in for the Great Tit chicks




but this plump example failed to get the same reception.


A caterpillar is offered to three of the Great Tit chicks


Larger caterpillars pose a problem for the chicks in that even their wide gape is only just big enough to cope.

This caterpillar was put into three mouths before finally it was swallowed.

I also saw a couple of spiders being delivered but I have yet to photograph a parent with one.


The female Great Tit prepares to leave with a faecal sac



Finally, Once the chicks are fed and you think it's time to rest, one produces a faecal sac that you have to either eat, or remove from the box, which is what happened to this one.




5 May - 6/7 days since hatching - Another perfect day for food gathering.

Great Tit chick in untidy nest


The nest really is getting to look a bit worse for wear as the female tries to keep up with the growing brood's need for more space.

I wonder what it would look like now if all ten eggs had hatched out!


Great Tit chick's wing, and failed egg


You quickly realise how much the chicks have grown when one of the remaining eggs is exposed.

This picture also shows just how quickly the wing feathers are developing.


Great Tit chicks



Today I couldn't get any photographs that showed a single chick clearly, but hopefully you can still get an idea of how they are getting on.


Great Tit chick, showing developing feathers onspinal ridge and shoulder area



In this image you can see the band of follicles running down the chick's back, and what look like very spiky shoulders at the moment.



Great Tit chick, showing a leg



It's interesting to compare the leg in this photograph with the one that I photographed just two days ago. And you can see how the yellow body feathers are developing.



Great Tit chicks, showing developing spinal feather tract, and tail


At last I've been able to get a shot of a developing tail. In this picture you are looking at the backs of three chicks and you can see the tail feathers on the right-hand one.

Up until now the developing feathers have been enclosed within a sheath, and many still are on the chicks. However, look closely at this photograph and you will see that some of the sheaths around the wing feathers  are starting to open up.


Great Tit female with caterpillar



The good weather is ensuring a continuing supply of large caterpillars,


Great Tit chick is fed with caterpillar



and the inevitable problem of how to push them into the mouths of the chicks.


Great Tit female offers another caterpillar to her chicks




As I mentioned yesterday, it is often a case of try one then another until you find a gape that the caterpillar will fit into!




Sorry - that's two days running that I haven't included any Starling images. I shall make sure that doesn't happen tomorrow. Just like the Great Tits, the Starlings are having no problem finding food for their offspring and the chicks appear to be doing well - I had to turn down the volume today!


6 May - 7/8 days since hatching - Another perfect summer's day, with the temperature above 22C, so there shouldn't have been any problems finding live food.

Great Tit male brings a peanut(?)



Despite that, the Great Tit male seems to have brought something form a bird table or feeder.

It may be a piece of peanut, but I'm not sure.


Great Tit chick's wing showing the emergence of feathers


I only spent a very short time at the box today, so just three pictures which I hope give some idea of the progress being made by the chicks.

First, I mentioned yesterday about how some of the wing feathers had started opening out of the sheaths in which they are growing. You can see it a bit better in this picture.

Great Tit chick's wing showing an open eye


This is the first time I've seen an indication that their eyes are starting to open - not much of a glint, but it's a start!

Although slightly out of focus, you can also see feathers developing around the rim of its ear.

Great Tit chick's back and tail




The final photograph, a clear picture of a the back of a chick, with its developing tail.



Great Tit chick climbs out of nest cup (cctv image)

The nest cup is now more of a nest cave, and when you watch the cctv picture you see the nest being pushed up by the chicks that are under it.

However, several times during the day, following a feed  one or even two chicks have found themselves out of the nest cup almost completely. To get into this position this chick had been using its legs to push against its siblings.

It soon slipped back into the safety of the nest cup.


The Starling chicks greet a parent



The five Starling chicks continue to thrive in a noisy way.


The Starling chicks



While they wait for the next feed they spend most of their time looking in the general direction of the entrance and chirp reasonably quietly, unless they hear a noise outside.


A Starling chick stretches its wings



They seem far less eager to leave the nest cup than the Great Tits, but I did see this one stretch its wings today.



A fly visits the Starling chicks


A big difference that I see between the two nests is the constant presence of insects in the Starling box, from flies like this one down to the fleas and mites that I find when cleaning the box.

It contrasts with the almost insect-free conditions in the Great Tit nest, except for the odd moth etc that visits.


Click on the images to see larger versions -

2008 Nestbox Diary Index.............Previous Chapter............ May - Part 2