Rare success story for bird social services

Baby bird
This eastern phoebe chick survived a 30-foot fall. (PHOTO: Christina H. Brown)

Nature is tragedy. So it was the day an eastern phoebe nest fell 30 feet from the top of a security light on my father-in-law’s garage. Four chicks tumbled, three to their death. But one little bird stayed in the nest and survived the landing. My wife received an urgent call for us to come over.

The chick appeared to be alright, but the parents had cleared out, probably assuming all their babies perished. Phoebes raise at least two broods per season. Setbacks like this require the briefest of bird grief. Mom and dad would try again somewhere else.

But that didn’t help our little chick. This little fuzzball was still breathing and had to be pretty hungry and parched after hours under the fallen nest. What to do?

Birds don’t have a social services department. Or, as my son Doug so artfully put it, “Bird social services is the ground. The ground decides.” My father-in-law remembered his mom nursing a baby bird with milk and bacon grease, but that solution predated many modern scientific advances. Besides, none of us wanted to spend the next few years mixing avian gruel for an illegal pet bird.

Instead, we called our friend John Latimer, a noted naturalist with a radio show on KAXE. After a few questions, he identified the bird and theorized the cause of the accident.

Phoebes like to build new nests on top of old nests. As the years go by, they’ll perch on a veritable tower of foraged grass and moss. Ask any engineer, they’ll tell you that user modifications are the number one reason for failed design.

John asked if we knew of any other phoebe nests. It so happened that we have one under our deck next door. In fact, a mama phoebe had laid a clutch of eggs that was due to hatch soon. John said to put the chick into that nest. Eastern phoebes tend to be generous parents who lack critical observation skills. In fact, an entire species — cowbirds — survives by kicking phoebe eggs out of their nests and laying their own for the phoebes to raise.

So, Christina and I brought the chick to our house. We lifted up the bait cup that her dad had used to nurture the bird and poured it into the nest. We peeked through the deck slats to see the little bird nestling amid a pile of small white eggs.

The next morning Christina went out to check on the bird. To her joy, and mine, the mama bird flew out of the nest. She had accepted the chick as an early, overly large hatchling of her own. Then, later that day, the rest of the eggs hatched. The timing was perfect, even if this particular nest became rather crowded.

This was a rare win for bird social services, which turned out to be us, not the ground.

It’s true that birds sometimes build their nests too tall and the babies fall out, but if we’re being honest, we do that sometimes, too. Helping the fallen is our strength, never our weakness.

Nature might be harsh and at times woefully grim, but it’s not without hope.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, June 17, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. joe musich says

    A friend in Duluth is posting dialy on a robin brood raising on her porch type area, Your tale was touchying. I am glad there aren’t any Ann Rand birds caring for the Phobes.

  2. R. Bachman says

    I humbly suggest if possible to provide some bird food for the extra mouth in the new nest or one life may be traded for another if there’s insufficient food for the smallest baby in a crowded nest.

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