A fortnight ago I wrote about the fledgling birds in the garden. The woods, too, are full of fledglings, but they are much harder to see in the dense summer foliage. Once the family has left the nest, the youngsters spread out and hide in cover, thus increasing the chances of at least some of them evading predators till they’ve learned to be independent. I’ve found the best way to locate them is by sound, and it’s much easier than identifying adult birds by song – fledglings’ main purpose is to gain a parent’s attention and get fed, and they do this by insistent squeaking calls. They can make a terrific racket – even before they fly the nest.
I remember once in Middleton Woods being bewildered by a veritable cacophony of squawks echoing round the trees. Finally I traced the source by seeing a female great spotted woodpecker fly onto the trunk of an alder stump. The volume increased to frenzy and several red-capped heads shot out of a hole in the stump, beaks a-gape.
Some of the loudest cries come from tawny owl chicks. They are still quite immature when they venture from the nest-hole, looking rather like stuffed toys, inexpertly knitted with angora wool, and they nimbly scramble about in the undergrowth, aided by their long toes. I once heard a pair at dusk in Bolton Abbey; they’d found refuge in a large roadside bush and kept up a volley of piercing squeaks. I could also hear the kwik-kwik of a parent bird in the distance – as, no doubt, could they.
However, my prize for the loudest calling chick must go to a young cuckoo. It had been raised by a pair of meadow pipits and, having left their tiny nest beneath a tussock of rough grass, spent nearly a week flapping a few yards then perching again on the wall that separated moor from intake pastures. Each day we went to see it, and each day we easily located it by the ear-splitting squeaks with which it summoned its poor, hard-working foster-parents. To and fro they came, with tiny morsels of food, sometimes even perching on their giant offspring’s back to get at its huge gaping bill. The combination of yellow gape and shrill cry seems as unignorable to a bird as a newborn baby’s wailing to an adult human. Cuckoos are well supplied with both.
Photo by Andy Vernon [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons