a most difficult day

Most days spent backyard birding are pure bliss; we get to witness aerial acrobatics, courtships displays and fledglings learning to fly. We’re treated to the sweet sound of birdsong. And then there are days like today. Difficult days when you’re reminded why birds lay multiple clutches of more than just one egg.
Junco babiesLess than a week ago, I posted this image of three Dark-eyed Junco babies that had just hatched. I was thrilled that Mr. and Mrs. Junco had built their nest in our backyard for the third year in a row and that I was going to see another generation of baby birds grow up.

Unfortunately, today I have some sad news. This morning after breakfast I heard an extraordinary amount of chirping through the open window of our bathroom, so I went outside to investigate. What I found was very upsetting …

Mom and Pop Junco were bravely trying to save their newly hatched chicks from a snake.

If you recall, the birds had built their nest inside a plastic bag filled with dead ferns that I had left leaning up against my potting bench. You can see the orange and white plastic bag in the image below; the nest is situated about five inches below the bag opening, very well hidden from view by dead fern fronds.

Junco nest locationWhen I arrived on the scene this morning, the pair of tiny adult birds were valiantly swooping to the nest from a nearby tree, landing on or near the bag – all the while, chirping loudly in distress. Then they’d swoop away and try again. I immediately realized something was wrong and looked inside the bag. I wasn’t fully prepared to see what I saw: a snake – about 18″ long and as thick as my thumb – inside the bag, partially on the nest, swallowing one of the three baby birds.

I’ll warn you now – if an image of a snake swallowing a bird is something you don’t want to see, stop reading now. FYI: thankfully, the two remaining baby birds survived.

I screamed for my husband to come outside and grabbed a long wire plant support that was thankfully sitting right on top of my potting bench. I bent one end to create a hook and tried lifting the snake out of the bag. My first two attempts were unsuccessful – the snake kept slipping right off the hook and back into the bag. I realized I needed second hook, so I grabbed a six inch long stainless steel landscape staple (normally used to secure drip irrigation tubing) that was again, thankfully, sitting right on top of my potting bench. Using both hooks, I managed to carefully lift the snake out of the bag and drop it into a five gallon bucket that my husband had grabbed from beneath the potting bench. My hands weren’t shaking, but my heart was pounding.

With bucket in hand, I walked very quickly out of the backyard, while shouting for my husband to go grab my camera. Below are two images I managed to capture after I released the snake onto an old stump, located far, far away from the bird’s nest.

Junco snake victimJunco snake victim closeupWhen I checked on the snake about 15 minutes later, the bird had been completely swallowed and was midway down the snake’s body. When I checked again, about 30 minutes later, the snake was gone.

When my husband and I returned to the scene of the tragedy, Mom and Dad Junco were still in distress. They were still trying to see into the bag, but clearly afraid that the snake was still there. We checked the area for more snakes (found none, thankfully) and then placed a five gallon bucket next the the bag so they could land closer in order to see inside the nest. After a few minor adjustments (we didn’t try to move the nest or chicks), the birds finally landed on the rim of the bucket and checked on their two remaining babies. And with that we left them alone (after scattering some bird seed and refilling their water dish). Things immediately quieted down and we breathed a sigh of relief.

An hour later, I went back out to check on them and all was well. Mom and Dad were eating the bird seed that I had scattered, so I quickly checked on the nest and managed to capture a quick photograph of the two remaining Junco babies.

Junco babies - two survivors

The newly hatched chicks had changed position and were now laying side-by-side, both facing the same direction. As soon as I left, Mama Junco was back in the nest and Papa Junco was back in the nearby tree, watching over them.

If you find an animal in distress and aren’t sure what you should do, clicking here will direct you to the wonderfully helpful Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley website. Their flow-charts will walk you through the decision making steps needed to evaluate the situation and choose the best course of action. Their website also has excellent information to help you coexist with the wildlife living in your backyard and city parks.

Even if you aren’t a resident of California, I think you’ll find the information on their website very useful. The Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley provides quality care and rehabilitation to injured, sick and orphaned wildlife in Silicon Valley. You can read about some of their success stories by clicking here. They’ve successfully rehabilitated and released an injured bobcat, Red-Shouldered Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Barn Owl babies and a Double-crested Cormorant that had swallowed a fishing hook.

Finally, the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley website also offers a wealth of information to help you attract birds and wildlife to your garden, fend off mosquitos, protect the wildlife in your yard, learn more about beneficial insects, help you certify your garden as a wildlife sanctuary and learn more about many species of animals that live in your yard.

I’ll wrap this up by simply saying that as heartbreaking as it was to see one baby bird perish, we’re thankful two others survived.


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