Nestling White-Plumed Honeyeater

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paulhughan
Nestling White-Plumed Honeyeater

We have white-plumed honeyeaters nesting in our backyard. They built a nest at the end of a branch. We have had lots of strong wind over the last week. I saw the parents under the nest, presumably repairing it. But today a nestling was on the bricks in our yard under the nest.

I got on a ladder and looked at the nest, and the bottom of it had basically pulled apart. There was still one nestling in there. I tore a strip of red material, and put it in the nest to try and fill the gap, then put the other nestling back. After a while (maybe half an hour) the parents were back and seemed to be feeding the nestlings. 

Then there was more wind and the red material and both nestlings were on the ground. The bottom of the nest was gone. I got a small plastic flower pot, punched holes in it (including the bottom), cut the remains of the nest out of the tree and put it in the pot. Then I hung it in a new location in the tree. I put one nestling back, that still seemed strong. The other seemed a dead loss--see below. (Was significantly smaller than other anyway.)

Parents kept going to the original location, so I took nest down and rehung it closer to where it was. Parents have been close but as of now, about an hour and a half later, don't seem to be feeding it.

See picture of new 'nest' below. Any help/comments?

sue818
sue818's picture

Hi Paul, just saw your post. Any luck with parents feeding the nestling?

Sue

paulhughan

Well, there's good news and bad news. This morning the parents appeared to be feeding the surviving nestling in the nest. However, this afternoon I came out to find the remaining nest material on the ground. Parents were going to the nest with food, looking in, then going away. I got on the ladder and sure enough, the brown pot was completely empty. No sign of the nestling anywhere. So I'm guessing some other bird predated on it. That brown 'nest' was obviously far too visible. I should have used something green--if I'd had any.

I'd say the parents chose their site badly--it was at the end of a long flexible branch, it whipped around like crazy in the wind and basically shook the nest to pieces. As I said above, the parents were obviously trying to do running repairs, but unsuccessfully.

I think now that I should have wrapped some green cloth around the whole nest and fixed it to the tree. I was trying to be minimally interventionist and I was just half-baked. Once the nest had reached that stage a quick fix wasn't going to work.

I guess the reality is that the mortality rate for nestlings is probably very high...? Any figures, anyone?

paulhughan

I'm also wondering if the nestlings were injured when they fell. They would have fallen about two metres onto bricks. I'm thinking they were too light to injure themselves, but I could be wrong. The smaller one was warm but not moving when I picked it up, and was cold within the hour. So maybe it was killed by the fall. How heavy does an animal have to be to injure itself in a fall? I know that fully-grown cats can reach their terminal velocity and land uninjured, but they have special adaptions.

sue818
sue818's picture

At least you tried to help. My daughter performs a lot of rescues and smaller birds do seem to have a high mortality. As you said , they may have been injured in the fall but perhaps also lost a lot of body heat. Perhaps the next nest will be better placed and stronger. Our local magpies steal nesting material from our pot plants so it may have looked inviting

Sue

Woko
Woko's picture

I like your minimally interventionist philosophy, paulhugan. 

Normally, natural events like storms result in some losses for some species. White-plumed Honeyeaters nest placement usually makes their nests vulnerable to storms. This might be one way in which natural population control occurs.

That said, climate change may well be impacting on bird populations by causing higher breeding losses than otherwise would be the case through greater storm intensity. So there may be an argument for sensitive intervention to counteract the effects of climate change. Knowing what level of intervention to make is the tricky bit. I guess you can simply think it through & then use your best judgement. It certainly seems to me that you've given a lot of thought to what you tried with this particular nest & have decided that in a similar event you'd make at least one change to your approach: make any substitute nest as invisible as possible to any potential predators. 

I've never seen any data about survival weights for falling nestlings & I doubt there is any but you never know. Mortality rates vary among species but for some species, especially among raptors I understand, the weakest in a brood doesn't survive.

paulhughan

I only meant 'minimally interventionist' in the sense of messing with the nest. In retrospect, once it had pulled apart that much, only major intervention would have saved it.

With ecosystems, 'minimal intervention' is nonsense. Humans have changed every ecosystem on the planet. As for Australian suburbs--here, as elsewhere, humans will get the ecosystems we decide to have.

These white-plumed honeyeaters are the only ones I've seen around here, in fact the only ones I've seen in Melbourne. I understand they're very common elsewhere, but I'd rather see their population here build up than the pigeons, mynahs, starlings and blackbirds that currently dominate the area.

There's no point talking about 'non-intervention' when 95% of the land surface, conditions and vegetation around this suburb are determined by our intervention.

Woko
Woko's picture

There's no doubt that if you are to have a larger population of White-plumed Honeyeaters (& perhaps other native species) in Melbourne then quite heavy intervention will be needed to restore the habitat those species require. 

However, there are situations in which minimal, even non-, intervention is the preferred approach. For example, in bush care it's wise to use a minimal intervention approach in order to avoid soil disturbance which would result in higher populations of weeds. Also, there are occasions when it is more helpful not to intervene to rescue a young animal when the parents are nearby & teaching it to survive. 

But I take your point that we humans have had enormous impact on most if not all of Earth's ecosystems. Unfortunately, human hubris means that we consider our species to be above & beyond all others rather than as a part of the whole. This is supported by the dominion notion in the book of Genesis which was written, I imagine, at a time when Earth's ecosystems were in a far healthier state than they're in today. 

paulhughan

Yes...

The thing is, no suburb is a 'natural environment'. So there is no point expecting nature to 'strike a balance' or something. Since we're throwing everything around anyway, putting a finger in the scales is just a way of taking some responsibility.

That said, I would still prefer not to have intervened. But when nestlings are lying there helpless on the bricks, not doing anything is a decision itself--deciding they'll die. So I intervened--they still died. Next time I would intervene more heavily, because if you're going to do something you should do it properly. On that note, does anyone have any suggestions on how to hold together a disintegrating cup-shaped nest? Note that the nest was already about 30% human-made fibres (which may have been a poor choice on the birds' part). I'm thinking like a fine mesh bag, like a garlic bag, lined with fabric so nestlings can't get stuck in it.

I will try and make a prototype...:-)

paulhughan

As a postscript to this, I've just been watching two fledgling (but plainly able to fly well) white-plumed honeyeaters sitting on a branch, being attended to by at least four adults. So obviously they've tried again and succesfully nested nearby. The fact that there are four adults attending them helps explain why it took a while for the adults to find and feed the nestling in the new 'nest' I made--I wasn't watching two adults coming and going at short intervals as I thought, I was seeing at least four adults arriving at much longer intervals, and one by one going 'huhhhh???'

Woko
Woko's picture

Most interesting, paulhughan. I wasn't aware that more than two adults attend to the youngsters. Morcombe's Field Guide to Australian Birds makes no mention of this. I wonder if other Birds in Backyarders have noticed what you've noticed.

It seems your prototype was a success.

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