A Common Merganser parent stands on a rock with six small youngsters, looking at the photographer out of its periphery. The female’s cinnamon head and feather crest, and the pale ruddy heads of the still-downy chicks, pop in the glow of the morning light.

Photo: Tin Sang Chan/Audubon Photography Awards

Audubon Photography Awards

Make Some Time for These Adorable and Awkward Baby Bird Photos

Here are 15 of our favorite shots featuring chicks from the 2021 Audubon Photography Awards.

Photographing birds can be difficult, with no shortage of early morning wake-ups, frustrating weather conditions, and uncooperative subjects. But capturing compelling images of young birds presents its own set of challenges. Chicks can be even more unpredictable than adults, have funny behaviors—peeping or begging for food for hours on end—and move suddenly, disrupting an otherwise beautifully in-focus image. Photographing parents with chicks also requires extra patience (feedings occur quickly and infrequently) and hypervigilance to any sign of stress in the parents or chicks. Taking pictures of baby birds from a responsible distance and with a telephoto lens is the best way to avoid causing harm to adults or young. 

The 15 photos in this gallery safely and crisply capture chicks of various species in all their cute and fluffy glory. Although the images below didn't snag any awards—check out the winners and Top 100 if you haven't yet—they certainly warmed our hearts. Read on to learn more about each species' nesting behavior and perhaps even utter a gleeful sound or two.  

Common Merganser (above) 

Bathed in soft morning sunlight, a female Common Merganser stands guard over her six small youngsters. Based on the emergence of their tail feathers, the chicks appear little more than two-weeks old, though they already closely resemble their mother with their gray bodies and cinnamon-colored heads. Common Mergansers lay up to 17 eggs, so it's not uncommon to observe a parade of merganser chicks following their mom along the shore or across a freshwater lake in the summer. Mergansers nest exclusively in cavities and rely on old Pileated Woodpecker tree hollows or human-constructed nest boxes. The male helps little after mating, abandoning the female to incubate eggs and raise chicks alone. Young grow rapidly and can forage on their own after a week, eating mainly small aquatic insects before switching to catching fish. The mother sticks close to her chicks for several weeks to defend them from predators, including hawks and eagles.

Great Horned Owl

Photographer Michael Cassella captured this photo of a floofy young Great Horned Owl in fading sunlight, highlighting the streaked feathers and glowing yellow eyes of the chick. Great Horned Owls are the most widespread owls in North America, surviving in any habitat except the coldest arctic regions. The are known to nest in a wide variety of locations, from trees to barns to cliffs. Unlike most species in temperate climates, they also nest in winter, commonly laying eggs in December and January. The female incubates the eggs while her mate hunts to feed her and himself during the 30–37 day period. Though chicks don’t fly until almost seven weeks old, they can climb and scramble around at 40 days old. Good thing for this chick, which was blown out of its nest in high winds, according to Cassella. 

Orchard Oriole

Orchard chicks typically fledge, or leave the nest, after two weeks, but the family remains together at the breeding territory for several more weeks. Here, a male Orchard Oriole and its adult-size fledgling share a thin branch as the father places a morsel of food in the youngster’s open bill. Though the fledgling’s bright greenish-yellow plumage matches that of the female Orchard Oriole, the feeding behavior helps identify this as a juvenile bird. Orchard Orioles eat a variety of foods ranging from berries and insects to the nectar from flowers or hummingbird feeders. Females build hanging, basket-like nests of woven grass and plant fibers, where she lays 4-6 pale blue eggs. Common in the Midwest and southern United States, Orchard Orioles breed early, wrapping up chick-rearing by early August. Males depart for Central and South America first, while females and juveniles forage together for at least four more weeks before starting their southern migration. 

Great Black-backed Gull

Don’t mess with Great Black-backed Gulls: They are surprisingly fierce predators, able to swallow small mammals and adult birds as big as Atlantic Puffins whole. Fortunately for any potential prey, this small downy chick won't be swallowing anything that large for some time. Instead, when hungry, the young gull chick will peck at the red spot on the lower bill of the adult, stimulating the adult to regurgitate a tasty meal. Nearly extirpated by the feather industry and egg collectors during the 19th century, the Great Black-backed Gull population rebounded to numbers exceeding historic estimates, in part due to anthropogenic food sources and discarded bait from commercial fishing. The largest gull in the world, Great Black-backed Gulls winter along the entire eastern coast of North America but only breed in coastal areas stretching from North Carolina to Maritime Canada. 

Common Gallinule

A tiny Common Gallinule chick uses it already-large feet to navigate its way across a cluster of dinner-plate-size lily pads. Mostly covered in sooty down, the chick has featherless tips on its wings, called “spurs," that help it climb into the nest and grab onto vegetation. Common Gallinules practice cooperative breeding, where a female and one or more of her daughters sometimes share a male and raise young together. Pairs can raise two broods each year, often with juveniles from the first brood helping chick-sit and feed young from the second brood. Not quite as secretive as other species in the rail family, Common Gallinules frequent wetlands and marshy areas in the eastern and southern United States, breeding as far north as parts of Canada. The widespread destruction of wetlands has caused the Common Gallinule to decline across much of its range.

Western Grebe

The red eye and vibrant yellow bill of this adult Western Grebe might normally steal the show—but not when three downy gray chicks are hitching a ride. Photographer Krisztina Scheeff described snapping this image at a fortuitous time: All three chicks eagerly reached out simultaneously as a parent approached with a fishy mealNative to freshwater lakes in western North America, Western Grebes and the closely related Clark’s Grebes are perhaps best known for their enthusiastic courtship displays. The birds perform elaborate dance moves, standing vertically, their long, elegant necks extended, and running across the water. In South America, the Hooded Grebe takes these moves to a whole new level

Virginia Rail

Two tiny, black Virginia Rail chicks forage in the green stubs of emerging grass. Like many rails, Virginia Rails inhabit shallow wetlands with tall grass and rushes that provide protective cover and ample foraging opportunities for snails, crayfish, insects, and small fish. Both parents construct the main nest where females lay 4–13 eggs, but pairs also build a secondary nests to use as extra space for feeding or brooding chicks. These "dummy" nests can also come in handy as backups if rain floods the main nest site. Chicks leave the nest within several days of hatching, but parents continue to brood the chicks at night, until they thermoregulate on their own. Both parents feed chicks until they are a few weeks old. Looking closely, you can see a worm—freshly delivered by the adult—hanging out of the central Virginia Rail chick’s bill. 

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbirds cover a wide range of North America, breeding as far north as Canada, where the photographer captured this adorable scene. During the summer breeding season, Eastern Kingbirds primarily eat insects, like the small praying mantis an adult Eastern Kingbird prepares to feed its fledgling in this image. Because of their insect-heavy diet, Eastern Kingbird chicks and adults regurgitate compact pellets of insect exoskeletons—the rough bits they can’t digest. Their diet switches to berries during migration and when wintering in tropical forests of South America. Although young can fly after two weeks, parents continue to feed them for more than a month after fledging.

Red-winged Blackbird

This Red-winged Blackbird is the quintessential awkward adolescent, with white wisps of downy fluff and a characteristic large yellow gape—the fleshy area at the base of the bill. Somewhat of a generalist, Red-winged Blackbirds frequent uplands, wetlands, and semi-natural habitat lining agricultural fields. Females tuck their grassy nests into the crooks of trees and weave them into cattails and reeds. Hatched as a blind and mostly naked chick, this youngster was wholly dependent on its parents for the first 10 days, rapidly gaining weight and sprouting feathers before fledging. Still dependent on its parents for an additional two weeks after leaving the nest, the young Red-winged Blackbird in this photograph clings tightly to a reed stem until its next feeding. 

Northern Flicker

Three gray heads of Northern Flicker youngsters poke their heads out of the side of a rough-barked tree, all three focused on an object to the left of the frame, out of sight. Their side profiles stand out sharply against the blurred green background.
Photo: Rowland Willis/Audubon Photography Awards

Photographer Rowland Willis patiently hid behind a tree to capture this image of three red-shafted Northern Flicker chicks poking their heads out of their nest cavity. Though males do the heavy hammering, both parents work to create the cavities in dead trees where they lay eggs and rear their young. Unlike other woodpecker species, flickers use their bills to dig up ants and beetles from the ground to feed their chicks—no small feat when you have three nestlings to care for. Formerly classified as separate species, the red-shafted and yellow-shafted subspecies of Northern Flicker inhabit wooded areas in the western and eastern United States, respectively. Adult, and even juvenile red-shafted males sport a red malar stripe extending down from the bird’s bill below the eye; the lack of any red in the birds’ faces, even at this young age, suggests these are probably female nestlings.

Black Tern

Wings outstretched, an adult Black Tern flutters in midair as it extends its bill with a single tiny fish to two begging young. Tern chicks remain in the nest for only a few days after hatching, and then hide in nearby vegetation, running out to the nest site with mouths open wide when parents arrive with food, as captured in this photo. With their dark plumage and preference for freshwater marshes, Black Terns are anomalous from other tern species identified by their bright white plumage along the ocean coasts. As with these other terns, the Black Tern's pointed, agile wings help them swoop gracefully down to the water surface to capture fish or other prey, including moths. Black Terns breed in the northern United States and Canada—as well as Eastern Europe and Russia—and migrate to coastal areas in Central and South America and the western African coast for winter. Though they have declined substantially in North America due to conversion of their preferred marshy habitat, their wide range still makes them a species of low conservation concern globally

Sandhill Crane

Here, an adult Sandhill Crane with its characteristic crimson-red mask stands guard over one fuzzy young chick, its tiny head barely peeping above the grass. A second chick helps keep watch from the adult's back. Most Sandhill Cranes breed in the northern United States and Canada while wintering in southern states, but some populations live year-round in Cuba, Florida, and Mississippi. When migrating, they depend on critical stopover areas—the Platte River in Nebraska being one of the primary ones—to make their journeys. Sandhill Cranes have an elegant courtship ritual with eight unique displays that involve wing pumping, head bowing, and leaping into the air. They also mate for life, sticking together year-round. Sandhill Crane's often build floating nests of dried grasses and sticks where females lay their two eggs. Covered in yellow down when they hatch, chicks leave the nest and even swim soon after hatching. Young, called colts because of their long legs, stick with adults up to 10 months, even accompanying parents on their fall migration. 

Common Loon

After a vigorous feeding session, this downy Common Loon chick curled up on its parent's back to nap. Common Loons nest on lakes throughout Canada and the northern edge of the United States, though only bodies larger than 250 acres can support more than one breeding pair. Loons are more attached to a territory than a mate; during their long lifespan—up to 30 years—they will switch mates, sometimes even during the breeding season. Common Loons struggle to walk on land, so females build nests close to the lake edge and typically lay two eggs. Within hours of hatching, Common Loon chicks—covered in sooty down—enter the water and start swimming. Parents stay with the chicks for up to 12 weeks after hatching to continue feeding, teach them to dive and forage, and, yes, even offer free rides. 

Anhinga

A large Anhinga chick, covered in clean white down and half the size of its parent, sits in a nest built of sticks and twigs. Snuggled close to the adult, the chick imitates its parent’s posture, curving its neck and looking upward. A thick lump in the throat of the youngster suggests a recent feeding. Anhingas live year-round in parts of Florida, and make short, partial migrations between breeding areas in the southern United States and Florida, Louisiana, and Mexico to winter. Master swimmers, Anhingas dive underwater and capture prey by stabbing fish with their long, dagger-like bills. Anhinga feathers lack waterproofing, making them heavier and helping them dive deeper and spend more time stalking prey. Like their cormorant relatives, Anhingas stand upright with outstretched wings to dry the waterlogged feathers after foraging, a common sight in protected water bodies or close to the coast.

Northern Mockingbird

Perched on a backyard fence, a Northern Mockingbird parent prepares to place a single food item in its young fledgling’s open mouth. Similar scenes can be witnessed across the country each spring and summer. Northern Mockingbird chicks fledge after just 12 days, but they still depend on food from their parents for a few more weeks before they’re ready to survive on their own. Parents feed young chicks piecemeal, bringing individual spiders, grasshoppers, and butterflies initially, and then a higher proportion of berries as they get older. Even with this extended chick-rearing time, Northern Mockingbirds can raise up to six broods each year, though three or four broods are most common in northern climates. Despite Northern Mockingbirds being widespread and relatively abundant throughout the United States, capturing this feeding was a challenge for photographer Julie Mackinnon. Careful to avoid disturbing the flighty youngster, she waited by an open window in her house to capture this crisp shot.

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