Empty nest syndrome

T-R PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG - Wildlife parents have a big job each year. For robins returning from a long migratory flight from wintering habitats, the job of establishing new territory, again, finding food, and adjusting to longer days are all part of the pattern Mother Nature has prescribed. Nest building becomes a primary task. Then come the eggs laid and kept warm. Once hatched, the young demand food, lots of it, which keeps the parents busy. Soon the young birds make their inevitable first clumsy flight away from the nest. However, they are not independent for many more weeks. An open beak begs to be fed. Parent birds oblige....up to a point. There has to come a time when the young robin will be completely on its own, having learned and matured to find its own way in life.

An EMPTY NEST is the long term strategy for lots of wildlife species, furry or feathered. And it certainly applies to humans also as we care for and watch our children grow up. The path to independence is as varied as the individual. It is also inevitable and desirable as children advance toward responsible adulthood.

Wildlife critters big and small raise young families annually. Each year is a new beginning and there are only a few short months to accomplish the goal of raising new families. Hopefully over the course of spring and summer, all will be able to survive a gauntlet of issues from adverse weather, hungry predators and finding enough food. Suitable natural habitats insure most of the above conditions can be met. And each species is hard wired to find and exploit their habitats for the task at hand.

A wide range of nesting criteria exist for birds. Some will have only one nest per year and that nesting cycle could be early, mid-year or late in the fall. It is a one nest per year deal and done. Geese and ducks are just one example of one and done. There are many others. Other birds may have several successful nests during the summer. Mourning doves fit into this category. There are many others. So it all depends upon the species and its role within the ecosystem and life cycle. Mother Nature has it figured out and has devised methods that work for each species.

Furry mammalian critter have the same annual task of rearing young. From small animals such as mice, shrews or ground squirrels to larger animal like coyotes, foxes and deer, they all are adapted to the task of having young, caring for them, educating them about foods to eat or not eat, avoiding predators and growing up to become independent.

Young deer fawns are now common. This scribe has seen several single birth fawns following mom across grassy fields. Every year doe deer produce a single fawn their first year, and usually twin fawns each year after that. A small percentage of advanced adult deer, about 10 percent of the population, will have triplets. Caring for the young is a full-time task. The doe must eat well to produce enough milk during the early months of a fawn’s life. As the fawns grow during the summer, there is a natural progression away from milk to eating green leafy plant material and tender buds from shrubbery and trees. Later this food preference will shift entirely to plant material.

Fawns are vulnerable at their young age to stormy adverse weather, predators and vehicles if crossing roadways. However as they continue to grow, survival becomes easier but never totally out of the picture. They can run faster which helps to keep predators off guard. They learn to spend more time away from mom but keep the tie close at hand. A bleating call by a fawn in trouble may bring many doe deer on the run to investigate. Who is in trouble and where is the trouble? A doe deer will become quite brave if need be to chase away a predator. Then with a subtle signal will instruct the fawn to hide while she presents a diversion that the predator will follow. Thus the fawn is spared, this time, from a fate that could have ended in death. It is another lesson of life learned by the fawn that its world can be a dangerous place.

I was amused earlier this spring while photographing fox pups at their den site. Two fox pups were sitting on their haunches side by side. Behind them a cottontail rabbit hopped across the grass not over 20 feet away. The pups noticed, ears became alert, eyes fixed on the rabbit, but they did nothing. They were too young, too naive, too inexperienced, too uneducated at that point to know what to do. Certainly if the mother fox had been a witness to the rabbit nearby, the chase may have been on. Catching food for the young to eat and having the young fox pups watch the chase would have been very beneficial for them. For wildlife species growing up, every day is another school day of instruction. Paying attention to details is what allows many to survive the rigors of living. Not paying attention my mean the critter becomes a meal for the predator.

This fall when waterfowl begin migrating southward, you will be witness to lots of young of the year birds making their first long journey. They are well on their way to total independence. The parent birds have completed their annual tasks of raising a new generation who are now very close to total adulthood. Empty nests, job well done, do it all over again next year.

On a completely different topic concerning EARTH’s NATURAL HISTORY, a dormant VOLCANO has proven that it is was only waiting for the right time to erupt again. Far away in the northwest pacific ocean, off the island chain in the Sea of Okhotsk off Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, on June 22, the tiny uninhabited island named Raikoke opened up. This volcano erupted after 95 years of being completely quiet. The volume of escaping gasses and volcanic rock blew high above an overcast cloud layer. The top of erupting gasses was 10 miles high. Luckily for the international space station’s orbital position at the time, the crew was able to photograph the ash plume top and its downwind drift of ash. A short video of this natural history event is available to watch on the internet.

According to recorded history, this island volcano last erupted in 1924. Previous to that it was inactive since 1778. Now it has proven that a volcano is never really dormant. This volcano is part of the pacific ring of fire, a line of earth tectonic plate submergence, shifting and earth crust movements that can be traced from the southern tip of South America up the coast to Central America, along California’s coast and upward to Alaska and back down along Kamchatka to Japan and further south toward Indonesia. This arch of geologic activity is home to thousands of earthquakes and active underwater and above the water volcanoes.

In the United States, we have the Cascade range with supposedly inactive volcanoes in Washington, Oregon and northern California. We know what happened when Mt. St. Helen came to life in the late 1980’s. And that was just one of her smaller historic, but devastating none the less. We also have Yellowstone National Park with its geysers and Old Faithful’s boiling hot water plume that visitors like to see first hand and photograph. Just so we humans do not become too complacent, the magma chamber of molten rock under Yellowstone is not going away. It was about 640,000 years ago when it last erupted. In a populated country of today, an ash plume of hot ash, gasses and rock erupting from Yellowstone would be very bad for everybody downwind.

Here is hoping you had a great weekend over the Fourth of July.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.