Pop quiz: What’s more appealing than a bird? Answer: a baby bird. Special precautions are necessary when photographing these youngsters—disturbances may hurt their chances of survival, and scared or stressed-out birds make lousy photo subjects anyway. But for those photographers who take the extra steps to be responsible and alert while attempting to capture moments of young birds, the rewards can be great. These entries in last year's Audubon Photography Awards show how it's done.
And don't forget: After you're done perusing these adorable photos, be sure to check out the 2019 Photo Awards winners, as well as the Top 100 entries. Should you find yourself so inspired, also consider entering the 2020 awards, which are open through April 6.
Sandhill Crane (above)
A female Sandhill Crane usually lays one to three eggs in a clutch, with two being the typical number. When both eggs hatch, the whole family may stay together as a unit, but they often also split up, each parent taking one of the youngsters and walking off in different directions. Researchers think this may help to reduce aggression between the siblings, but it also may reduce the chance that predators will get both chicks.
Western Grebes build floating nests in shallow water. Within minutes after each egg hatches, the baby grebe crawls up onto the back of the attending parent and nestles in under the feathers. After all the eggs hatch, the parents swim away with the chicks—becoming, in effect, the new floating nest for their charges. For at least the first couple of weeks, the baby grebes will spend most of their time riding on their parents’ backs, with the two adults taking turns carrying the offspring and diving for food.
Hatching out in nests on high Arctic tundra, baby Snowy Owls may have many siblings or only a few, depending on the season. When prey is abundant—during summers when lemming populations are high—female Snowy Owls lay larger clutches of eggs, up to 10 or 11. When prey is scarce, they lay fewer eggs, sometimes as few as three, or they may not breed at all.
One of the most bizarre and primitive birds on Earth, the Hoatzin—an ungainly, leaf-munching fowl of the water’s edge in South America—has no close relatives. Its babies look just as strange as the adults, with an added prehistoric twist: They have rudimentary claws on their wings, useful for helping them climb back up to their nests if they happen to fall out.
Large seabirds have lengthy childhoods. A pair of adult Black-browed Albatrosses take turns incubating their single egg for at least two months until it hatches; then another four months will pass before the young bird learns to fly. This fuzzy youngster, being preened by one of its parents, still has many weeks to go before it will be able to spread its long wings and take to the air.
There are inherent risks to nesting on the ground and out in the open. Piping Plovers of all ages are well camouflaged against pale sand beaches, but even so, their downy young leave the “nest” (a simple scrape on the ground) within a few hours of hatching. The young can flap their small wings and lift off the ground by the time they’re three weeks old, but it may take up to five weeks before they’re capable of strong flight.
Originally native to the Old World, the Cattle Egret spread from Africa to northeastern South America in the late 1800s, reaching North America by the early 1950s. It’s now common coast to coast here, especially in the southern states. Although Cattle Egrets mostly feed on insects in open fields, they usually nest near water in colonies with other herons and egrets.
A baby Common Loon comes out of the egg already covered with dense down, and within a few hours it can take to the water, swimming, and even diving as it follows its parents. The chicks use a different technique to stay submerged, however: Adult loons propel themselves underwater entirely by using their feet, but the babies are so buoyant that they must use their tiny wings, as well as their feet, to try to keep themselves below the surface.
Least Terns tend to choose risky nesting sites. Most of their colonies are on open beaches (of the sort also favored by humans) or on river sandbars subject to flooding (especially where manmade dams have altered the flow of water). In some areas, they’ve found success by establishing colonies on gravel roofs near the coast, but even there, excessive heat can be a problem.
Although young Sandhill Cranes can walk well enough to leave the nest within a day after hatching, they make little effort to feed themselves for the first several days, being fed almost entirely by their parents. After a couple of weeks they begin to find more and more of their own food, and they may closely watch their parents to pick up pointers on foraging methods. Young Sandhill Cranes are often referred to as “colts," which fits well when they're in this leggy, rangy stage.
Although these two fledgling Barred Owls aren’t doing a real fist-bump gesture, that interpretation wouldn’t be too far off. For the first few weeks after they leave the nest, these young owls often stay close together, even perching side by side. Not until the autumn of their first year do they spread out and become solitary.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Ugly Duckling, the unfortunate title character was a baby swan. In reality, there’s nothing ugly about baby swans; they’re just as cute as other young waterfowl. Downy young Mute Swans come in two distinct color morphs: gray (like the ones in this photo) or white. But all of them wind up with pure white feathers as adults.
These two young Anna’s Hummingbirds are almost full-grown, looking like short-billed versions of their mother, and soon they’ll be making their first flight. The nest that has cradled them so far is a marvel: festooned with lichens for camouflage but essentially woven of plant down and spider webs, it has stretched beyond its original size to accommodate the growing baby hummers.
A downy young Black Skimmer looks much like any young gull or tern at first—until the lower mandible of its bill starts to outgrow the upper mandible. The specialized feeding habit of this bird—dragging the lower part of its bill in the water while flying, to snag small prey—takes time to learn, so the young skimmer will be dependent on its parents for some time even after it learns to fly.
Considering the elegant grace of adult herons and egrets, it’s remarkable just how gawky and awkward their youngsters can be. Young Green Herons hatch out in twiggy nests up in trees, often above the water. By the time they reach the age of two weeks they can climb about in the tree, especially if danger threatens, but they won’t be able to fly well until they’re more than three weeks old.