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.
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.
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.