How does a Scrub Robin chick survive?

With a great deal of luck.

That’s mainly it.

Actually it’s a little more complicated than that. Apart from the unpredictable, like a genet sniffing out the nest or a freak hailstorm destroying it, a whole host of other factors need to come together for the incredibly vulnerable chicks of a Bearded Scrub Robin to survive. Feeding efforts of the parents, water availability, nest site selection, removal of parasites…
Born entirely altricial (born undeveloped and requiring a tremendous amount of parental care), scrub robins are nevertheless evolutionarily aware of the fragility of their infants’ lives, and Mother Nature has granted the young ones with almost supernatural powers of growth, in order to get through their helpless early stage as quickly as possible.

We recently witnessed this in the chick of one particular pair that chose a small leadwood stump near the Londolozi offices as their nest. A couple of us happened to be walking the path near the stump, and saw one of the parents sitting on the log with a grub in its mouth. Stopping to watch him/her eat the morsel, we were surprised to see the adult scrub robin hop down into the hollow, before emerging a few seconds later and flying off in search of more food. Realising there must be a nest there, we had a quick peep into the hole, and saw an absolutely tiny chick lying there next to a second egg (top left frame in picture below).

Not wanting to disturb the parents’ further feeding attempts, we moved away, but resolved to check in once a day to monitor the chick(s)’ growth.

The rate at which it developed was truly astounding, and within a week its naked body was covered in fluffy feathers, already starting to resemble the colouration of an adult.

Although the top left picture is given as Day 1, given the developmental stages we witnessed in the young robin and its size in comparison to the egg, it was most likely hatched a day or two before the nest was discovered. The second egg never hatched.

Both parents take turns feeding the developing young, although before the eggs hatch, it is only the female scrub robin that will incubate them.

Bearded Scrub Robins generally lay 2-3 eggs, but, as is the case of a large number of wild animals living where predators abound, the breeding success is low. In a study conducted in Kwazulu-Natal, 12 different nests had 35 eggs laid between them (most clutches have 3 eggs), but only 6 fledglings were produced. This is roughly 1-in-6. Red-chested cuckoos, common in the area during the summer months, were recorded as parasitizing 5 out of 22 nests in a similar study.

A peephole into the nest. between late morning and mid-afternoon on sunny days, the mother would sit on the nest, protecting the chick from the harsh sun that would be overhead.

The eruption of feathers from the quills is evident in this series of pictures, over the course of only 3 days.

As mentioned in the caption in the first picture above, the second egg failed to hatch, which apparently is relatively common in wild bird clutches.

As the chick reached about 10 days old (from first discovery; it was probably 12-13 days of life), I was away from the lodge for a few days, and was unable to chart the chick’s further progress.

However, I was thrilled upon my return to see a still-fluffy bearded scrub robin hopping about the undergrowth very close to the nest, being attended by at least one of the adults. The chick was begging for food, and over the course of the ten minutes or so that I watched it, it was fed with grubs by both parents.

The chicks apparently spend up to four weeks in the vicinity of the nest, still being attended by their parents, before they fly off to make their own way. Six weeks from hatching, these birds are fully independent, which I find quite remarkable.

Although I imagine we’ll see less and less of this young scrub robin as it becomes more and more able to care for itself, I can’t help but be thrilled that the tiny and totally defenceless (and let’s be honest, pretty ugly!) little bird we found on that first day has made it through what is certainly the toughest period of its life.

Although we can’t say for sure what will happen to it going forward, given that it’s the festive season, and we snuck in a tiny bit of anthropomorphising in yesterday’s post, I think this is as good a time as any to slip in a phrase that you probably won’t read on the Londolozi blog again:

And it lived happily ever after.

The end! 

Filed under Birds Wildlife

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

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13 Comments

on A Happy Ending: Survival of a Scrub Robin Chick

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Marinda Drake

A lovey feel good story James. It is amazing how many chicks actually survive, although there are thousands more birds to probably make up for the lossses. I remember a blog about a scrub robin nest in chef Anna’s garden. Does the same parents nest in close proximity to the previous year’s nest or is it impossoble to tell?

James Tyrrell

Hi Marinda,
Robert’s Birds has the population density as being about roughly one pair per hectare (100mm x 100m). I imagine since decent nests sites could be limited (depending on the nature of the territory), they may well reuse nests.

Lucie Easley

Thanks, James, for a glimpse into the very early life of this Robin. For however long “ever after” is, I hope it has a life that is happy and long enough to reproduce.

James Tyrrell

Thanks for the comments Lucie,
I don’t imagine the chick will go far, as scrub robins don’t have particularly big territories.

Darlene Knott

I loved this series of photos, James. What a transformation birds make from birth, and so quickly! Thanks for sharing!

James Tyrrell

Thanks Darlene. It’s incredible how fast they grow!

Jill Larone

Hi James, very interesting post and amazing how quickly this little one grew! I think the mother is quite pretty though, so there’s hope for this little one yet to grow into a beauty! I love the happy ending to your story!! 😊

Denise Vouri

Bravo to the chick’s parents for nurturing this little one. It’s the responsibility of any parent to provide food, shelter and love but some perform better than others.

I have a hanging flower pot here in Northern California that has been the nesting site for mourning doves. On average two eggs are laid – one year both chicks hatched and fledged and the second year, only one egg hatched. Seems a predator ravaged the other one. So yes, a lot of luck is involved to raise these tiny birds. Great that you discovered this nest and were able to record the development. Always enjoy the happy ending!!

Susan Strauss

Wonderful post, James. Magic happening everywhere!! A few years ago a robin built a nest right outside my dining room window at eye level; what a treat to watch a similar process unfold as you describe.

James Tyrrell

Hi Susan. Lovely to have them right outside the window. Did the chicks make it?

Susan Strauss

They did! Such a privelege and joy to watch in process.

Jazz Doc

Fabulous images. Loved the piece. Thanks!

James Tyrrell

Thanks Jazz,
Glad you liked it!

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