Who doesn’t love a good baby bird photo? These 16 shots submitted to the 2022 Audubon Photography Awards are all cute, yes, but they also capture brief moments in the varied lives of young birds. Documenting both important milestones of development, like feather growth, and more entertaining moments, like hangry chicks, these photographs grant us a peek into the intimate relationships between parents and their young.
Taking photos of wildlife responsibly should always be a top priority, especially when it comes to parents and their offspring. The photographers featured below all kept bird safety at the forefront, using telephoto lenses and constantly observing birds for signs of stress. It’s extremely important to avoid approaching a nest or disturbing the birds. How might you know if you’re too close? To defend their young, some species will fly at your head and attempt to draw blood (looking at you, Common Tern), while others might try to lure potential predators away with deceptive behaviors, like the broken-wing display
of a Killdeer. Snapping photos of baby birds using a blind
or telephoto lens from a distance, combined with hypervigilance to any signs of anxiety, will allow you to photograph birds as safely as possible.
Although these 16 images may not have clinched a win in the 2022 awards (take time to peruse the overall winners
and the Top 100
images), they were victorious in their unique captures. Continue reading to learn about each species’ breeding behavior—and prepare to gush over all these adorable baby birds
American Dipper (above)
Water cascades over a rocky stream bed, but the strange scene in the middle steals the limelight: The head of a charcoal-colored bird disappearing down the mouth of a second bird. Wings spread wide for balance, with a stubby tail and gaping yellow mouth, a young American Dipper squawks demandingly at its parent while simultaneously receiving food. Photographer Kate Persons snapped this moment after two of the four chicks fledged the nest and both parents busily foraged to feed all four nestlings. North America’s only aquatic songbird, American Dippers will search for insects including mayflies, beetles, and mosquitoes by submerging their head or even diving underwater. Because they prefer cool, clear water for successful food capture, this species’ presence can be a useful indicator of water quality.
A Mourning Dove adult and juvenile sit on a branch, their gray-brown plumage somehow popping against the mossy-green tree canopy. Raindrops sparkle on the tips of blurred pine needles in the foreground—the only clue that photographer Rehna George captured this scene at the start of an evening rain shower. Mourning Doves inhabit most of the United States and Mexico year-round, readily adapting to human-altered landscapes. A common backyard bird, they thrive in disturbed roadsides and urban areas, as well as more natural grasslands and woods. They can raise six different broods per year—a record among native birds. Females lay just two eggs, incubating them for two weeks. After hatching, chicks fledge around two weeks but stick close by. Both parents will feed babies “pigeon milk
,” a nutrient-rich liquid produced in an adult’s crop, switching to seeds when the chicks are older.
Bathed in golden sunrise light, a Western Gull chick, its head covered in black spots, holds what appears to be a fish dangling from its bill. Closer inspection of the image, as photographer Carmen Cromer discovered, reveals the object is a piece of plastic trash—a stark reminder of our impact on the natural world. Common denizens of the Pacific coast, from Baja to Washington, Western Gulls have a generalist diet, foraging waste at human landfills, chicks and eggs from other seabird colonies, insects, and fish scraps caught by other birds and marine mammals. Western Gulls nest on the ground in predator-free areas, amid low-lying vegetation or rocky terrain. Females typically lay three eggs, which hatch after four weeks. Chicks are semi-precocial, running around freely after one week. Feathers emerge 15 days after hatching, which ages the chick here at 2–3 weeks old, based on the tiny nubbins of wing feathers.
Look too quickly, and you just might miss the chick in this image. Below the ruddy face of an Eastern Screech-Owl peering out of its round tree hole, the head of an owlet pokes out, only the yellow eyes and curved bill visible. Most Eastern Screech-Owls are gray, with only 30 percent boasting red plumage like that of the adult owl in this photo. Both color morphs inhabit the same region, and will even breed. Mates pair for life, rearing young together and roosting together when not breeding. Females do the heavy lifting during incubation, but the male will bring food to his mate to compensate. Although nestlings, like the one in this photo, leave their nest cavity 4 weeks after hatching, their parents continue to feed them for an additional 8 to 10 weeks.
All lined up, four hungry juvenile Western Kingbirds sit on a wire, squawking at their parent and energetically demanding food. Outnumbered, the adult kingbird can only feed one chick at a time. Wings outstretched for balance while gripping the wire, the parent stretches its head forward to place a large grasshopper in the open mouth of the closest fledgling. Unlike some of the other species featured here, Western Kingbird youngsters look remarkably like their parents, complete with a gray breast and lemon-yellow belly. However, they lack their parents’ bright red crests that flare when aggressively protecting their territory. Kingbird chicks start to grow their feathers within five days after hatching, and will molt—dropping feathers and growing fresh ones—into their darker, adult plumage between fledging and their return to breed the following year.
Captured mid-stride, with wings extended for balance, two juvenile Gentoo Penguins, their white breasts still covered in down, trail behind an adult penguin sporting sleek black and white feathers. The three birds run along the rocky terrain of Bleaker Island in the Falkland Islands, where photographer Lin Teichman encountered a comical spectacle: After the adult penguins emerged from foraging in the sea, they would rush to locate and feed their nestlings in the rookery—only to be mobbed by chicks aggressively demanding the krill and fish, like these two juveniles. Gentoo Penguins breed across the Antarctic Peninsula and numerous sub-Antarctic islands, and their diet varies greatly among colonies. Proficient predators, they chase after prey, diving as deep as 450 feet for fish
. Penguin youngsters enter the sea for the first time 70 days after hatching
, but remain dependent on parental feeding while they learn to catch their own meals.
Three juvenile Barn Swallows perch on a dead, desiccated flower stalk that has snapped in half. With its wings gracefully outstretched, an aloft adult Barn Swallow places a tiny morsel of food in a lucky youngster’s mouth. The blue head and back feathers, white breast, and ruddy face of the adult bird provide a glimpse of the striking plumage these chicks will soon sport. Common in rural areas, Barn Swallows construct nests of mud and dried grass almost exclusively on human-made structures, such as under the eaves of houses, bridges, or their namesake barns. Old nests still in decent shape from the previous year get snagged early the following breeding season. Although one clutch a year is typical, more experienced females start breeding earlier and can rear two broods.
The warm glow of a setting sun softly illuminates a Piping Plover parent and its downy chick. Nearly camouflaged against the sand save for the bright orange base of its bill, the adult keeps a watchful eye on any potential predators—including photographer William Pully, who snapped this endearing photo on Plum Island, Massachusetts. Both male and female Piping Plovers help select the nest site, usually just a small scrape or depression in the sand above the high tide line. Often, they build multiple scrapes within their territory, taking up to 10 days to select a final site as the winner. Males and females also share incubation and brooding duties. However, female Piping Plovers abandon their family within a few days of hatching, leaving the male to guard young.
As five Common Goldeneyes rest on a lichen-speckled rock, the mother, on the left, keeps one eye open to carefully guard her four chicks, capped in black down and sporting a distinctive white cheek stripe. Nesting in cavities in dead trees or nest boxes, female goldeneyes can lay as many as 17 blue-green eggs, which the female incubates for 30 days (males ditch responsibilities within one to two weeks of egg laying). Soon after hatching, the floofy chicks head to the water, where mom watches over her raft of ducklings. Goldeneye youngsters are precocial, learning to feed themselves as soon as they leave the nest. They forage underwater for leeches, crustaceans, small minnows, and aquatic insects, as photographer John Alexander Kay observed before the chicks took this nap.
You've seen goslings before, but never like this: A young Canada Goose chick, covered in yellow and white down, stares directly into the camera. Under the watchful eyes of the parent, photographer Shane Kalyn used a telephoto lens while lying on his stomach to capture this stunning photo of the bold gosling. In the background, the parent’s legs and body emphasize the tiny size of the chick. Female Canada Geese lay up to 11 eggs in a large open nest cup on the ground. While the male stands guard, the mother incubates the eggs for four weeks. Within two days of hatching, downy goslings leave the nest and begin diving and foraging for their own food, including aquatic grasses, seeds, and small fish. Juvenile Canada Geese start flying at seven to nine weeks, learning their southward migratory route from following their parents and other experienced adults
Three juvenile Green Herons stand on a branch, their yellow feet and toes curled tightly around their woody perch. Their tawny brown back and head feathers, and brown-streaked breasts, glisten in the light. The white tufts of down—and ungainly position—are the only clues to their awkward adolescent age. All three youngsters peer upwards, the angle of their gaze directing an astute viewer to a large blue dragonfly, which one bird finally caught and swallowed, according to photographer Soo Baus. Green Herons breed in the eastern half of the United States near water and in densely vegetated areas, constructing platform nests of sticks in trees up to 30 feet tall. They typically raise no more than five chicks, which can fly as early as three weeks post-hatching. Even so, both parents may feed their offspring for a month after fledging.
A fuzzy brown Limpkin chick with a long, bicolored bill sits low on the ground, tucked among a mix of dead brown grass and fresh, green blades. Photographer John Morales had trained his camera on the large adult Limpkin standing in the reeds at the water’s edge in Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands in Florida when he noticed a dark lump—the small chick—off to the side. Using their long, slightly curved bills, Limpkins almost only consume apple snails, a freshwater species. The parents will bring unopened shells to the nest site and extract the snail while the chick watches before hungrily gobbling up the meat. Youngsters start capturing and eating snails on their own after five weeks, improving their snail processing time quickly. Limpkins were hunted to near extinction in Florida in the 1900s, and though their numbers have increased, they are still part of the Imperiled Species Management Plan
by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Clutching the side of a tree and using its iridescent tail feathers for support, an adult Resplendent Quetzal places a large damselfly into the open mouth of a young chick. The nestling pokes its head out of a cavity in the tree, mouth fully open to accept the large insect. The slightly muted colors of the adult’s head and chest in this image ID the quetzal as a female; the male has a distinct green crest and showier tail. Photographer Peter Cavanagh captured the exquisite detail using a camera with a giant telephoto lens mounted on a tripod for stability in the forest’s dim light. Cavanagh timed the image through careful observation, noting that the parents flew to an intermediate perch 60 feet from the nest site before delivering each food item. Soon after he snapped this photo, the young chick and its nestmate fledged from the cavity, swooping down to the forest floor. Native to Central America, Resplendent Quetzals are listed as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature because of a rapidly declining population due to deforestation.
Three young birds, recently fledged from their nest box, sit on a branch, their white bellies and speckled breasts clearly marking them as juveniles. In less than a year, these birds will sport the brilliant royal blue of their species: Eastern Bluebird. One of three bluebird species in North America, Eastern Bluebirds inhabit the eastern half of the United States. They breed in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, particularly on farmland, along roadsides, and in relatively open habitats. Their population declined with deforestation, as the birds nest naturally in tree holes, but their numbers have rebounded with the installation of artificial cavities. Belonging to the thrush family, Eastern Bluebirds nest readily in backyard bird boxes, and older birds even prefer them. Consider building a bluebird nest box
to attract breeding bluebirds to your backyard.
A yellow and brown fluffy Mallard chick sits on the water, the sole focus of the photographer’s lens. Four other Mallard poofballs float in the foreground, softly blurred to emphasize the central chick and its head, tilted upwards—seemingly contemplating the abundance of flying aquatic insects above its head. Although Mallards do eat insects, they primarily forage in the water by dabbling, dipping their head and neck underwater and sticking their butts in the air as they pluck seeds and pull roots and other plant material. Chicks start feeding themselves as soon as they enter the water, less than 24 hours after hatching, primarily feeding on small crustaceans, fish eggs, and invertebrates from land or water. When ducklings are closer to three weeks old, they progress to searching for aquatic plant bits.
The bright yellow bill, red eye, and sharp black cap of this adult Clark’s Grebe stand out in sharp contrast to the bird’s white body and watery blue frame. A large, downy gray chick rides on its parent’s back—perhaps too large to still do so—its breast just barely skimming the water surface. Photographer Kriztina Scheeff snapped this photo from a boat while holding her camera in her hands—not an easy feat to capture such a crisp image. Scheef has an eye for grebes: Her photo of a Western Grebe family also won a spot in Audubon’s showcase
of adorable chick photos from the 2021 Audubon Photography Awards. Until 1985, Western Grebes and Clark’s Grebes were considered to be two color morphs of the same species—Clark’s a paler, white morph. However, DNA analysis revealed that the two morphs rarely interbreed even though they live together in mixed colonies, indicating separate species.