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Friday, April 22, 2011

Why is it taking so long?

Nature develops many strategies to ensure the survival of young.  In birds, one of these is that a clutch of eggs may all hatch at nearly the same time (synchronous hatching) or at quite different time (asynchronous hatching).  Each strategy can have its advantages and disadvantages.

Eagles utilize asynchronous hatching.  As soon as the first egg is laid, the adults begin incubation.  If you were watching the nest cam at Duke Farms this year, you noticed that the first chick to hatch preceeded the second by only 2 days.  None-the-less, when it was 3 days old and the second was one day old, it got all of the food!  That is until it finally fell asleep.  In the presence of abundant food, the second chick received ample food and rapidly caught up with its older sibling.  If food supplies are not adequate, it is common (and to humans unpleasant) to see a case of siblingcide where the older chick eliminates the younger.  This is nature's way of assuring that the young that do survive are strong and able to care for themselves as soon as possible--one healthy offspring is better that two who are struggling.

To give the young that hatch later a better chance, many birds delay incubation of the first eggs.  This causes all of the eggs to hatch over a shorter period of time, evening out their ages.  Peregrine Falcons, like those in Jersey City, utilize synchronous hatching.  After the first egg was laid, the parents kept it warm but serious incubation didn't begin until after the 4th egg was laid.  In this way, all of the chicks should hatch within a short period of time.

Momma Screech laid 6 eggs over a 12 day period.  If every egg hatched the same number of days after it was laid, the last owlet would have no chance against the first.  When Momma laid the first eggs, she left them alone in the nestbox for up to an hour at a time, 2-3 times each night.  Only after the 4th egg did she start her current schedule of brooding the eggs essentially 24 hours per day taking only 2 breaks of less than 15 minutes each.   Since the incubation period for Screech Owls is reported to be 26 days and it has now been 26 days since the 4th egg was laid, we should start to see hatching soon.  And, if things go well, the eggs should hatch within a shorter period.

Still, it is going to be a struggle for all six owlets to survive.  It will take a lot of food for Momma and Papa to be able to successfuly raise that many.  As far as I know, she has never fledged more than 3.  So wish them all the best but remember, we are watching nature in action.

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