Photo: Rescued baby Cardinal perched on fence.
This afternoon our German Shepherds (Canis lupus hybrids), Oso and Maya, and I (Homo sapiens) were walking up to the yard from the greenhouses when the dogs alerted to a distressed chirping sound in the grass off the path. Following the dogs I found a large Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) with a baby bird. The dogs lunged at the snake and it released the bird and fled. I retrieved the bird and found it unharmed. We’d apparently come by at just the right time.
I quickly ascertained the baby bird was a Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) the farm’s most common bird. How? Well, two male and on female Cardinals were anxiously flitting about making their own distress calls. I searched for a nest to no avail. Thinking it best to place the bird off the ground lest the snake return, I placed the bird in an empty dog water bowl and put the bowl on a yard fence post. As I stepped back the adult Cardinals swooped in to check on the baby. The baby, however, was having nothing to do with the bowl and promptly hopped out and fell to the ground. I searched for another container and decided to use a box, wedging it into the fence’s wires. The baby bird couldn’t get out of the box but the adults were loath to enter it. I suspect they were uncomfortable not being able to see out to detect any approaching predators.
After adjusting the box’s sides to make it deep enough to retain the baby bird and possibly shallow enough for the adults, I watched the birds from our porch. The adults still wouldn’t enter the box. Finally, seeing that the baby bird was intent upon leaving the box, I picked it up and put it on one of the fence wires. It latched itself to the wire and didn’t budge. I backed off. The baby bird remained in place and the adults happily went to it. A couple of hours later the little bird was locked in place on the wire and the adults periodically visited.
After considering things I decided the little bird had been ready to leave its nest for the safety of nearby branches. I’ve seen Texas Rat Snakes eat entire broods of eggs and chicks from nests. But the snakes are too heavy to crawl out on to small limbs, so it’s probably safer for the chicks to abandon the nest as soon as they can cling to branches. That is exactly what this chick seemed determined to do.
Another thing struck me. I’ve noticed that many animals when being attacked by a predator make distress calls. Frogs and baby rabbits make almost identical high-pitched screams when a snake or other predator finds them. Baby birds make a chirping sound that even humans instinctively know is a distress call. Why would they do that? I believe they do so to alert other, maybe larger, predators to come. Many times our dogs and even I have saved a Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens) from a Texas Garter Snake (Thamnopsis sirtalis annectans) when we heard the frog scream. That also applies to baby Cottontail Rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus); although one time when Texas Rat Snake was after a clutch of them the dogs chased the snake away but ate the rabbits. Recently I live trapped a Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) and was taking it out to release away from the house. When I picked it up it screamed.
I still have vivid memories of a trip to Big Bend in the 1980s. We were following another car that hit an adult Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus). Its back was broken and it couldn’t survive. When I stopped to put it out of its misery the poor thing screamed. I’m still haunted by that sound.