Birds don’t, of course, hatch from eggs ready to just get up and fly, any more than humans are born ready to run or drive. Growing strong enough and developing the skills to fly is a multi-step process. Here’s how it starts:

These newborn American Robins have a few tiny feathers but are nowhere near ready to try flying.

Babies need protein! For songbirds, that means soft bugs like caterpillars—A LOT of them! If you lined up all the caterpillars mom and dad chickadee need just to raise one group of nestlings, those caterpillars would go lengthwise down a whole football field and all the way back. It takes 6000-9000 caterpillars!!

Lots and lots of…

Squishy caterpillars

leaves of native plants like

any oak tree, like this White Oak (Quercus alba)

and Black Cherry trees (Prunus serotina)

parent birds like this Chestnut-sided warbler

new birds, like this young Chestnut-sided Warbler—and therefore survival of Chestnut-sided Warblers as a species!

By the way, the scientific name for a Chestnut-sided Warbler is Setophaga pensylvanica. After they eat a gazillion bugs—that we Pennsylvanians hopefully kept free from pesticides—these warblers migrate to Latin America, where the species is called “Little Queen of Pennsylvania.”

Once baby birds have developed feathers and flight muscles, their parents feed them from farther and farther away to encourage the babies to walk, hop, and eventually fly to reach mom and dad’s food offerings.

Will this youngster Great Horned Owl be brave enough to fly? A parent stays close by to encourage (and maybe also to nudge).

Sometimes when they’re first learning to fly, they fall from the nest onto a branch, as this Eastern Kingbird discovered. (Pennsylvania has queens AND kings!)

And sometimes they tumble onto the ground!

Sometimes they land on branches, like this fledgling Northern Mockingbird.

This young robin plopped onto some vines.

Learning to fly makes them HUNGRY. So they beg their parent (on the left) for snacks. Mama Eastern Kingbird has three fledglings to feed. Bring on the bugs!

Just like human teens, Eastern Phoebe fledglings like to hang out together.

This young Osprey is new to flying and pretty awkward! But we humans are awkward when learning to walk, too.

Young birds learn to fly through a combination of instinct, practicing what their growing bodies can do, observing their parents, receiving nudges and movement challenges from their parents, learning from their mistakes, and the powerful motivations to get going to find food and escape predators. Eventually, like all teens, they discover that moving around can also help them find mates!

Also check out Christine’s post I Found a Baby Bird… Now What!

Christine Du Bois , Ph.D., Coordinator for the Lansdowne Bird Town

Image credits:

Robin_Nest_with_Chicks_(8784131565)”, by gardener41 , licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

WVU Football Practice Field 2”, by Swcrowe, licensed under  CC BY-SA 4.0

Sallow caterpillar, Cecrita guttivitta caterpillar, White oak tree leaves, Blooming Black cherry, and Carolina Chickadee feeding fledgling, shared with permission from Karen Campbell

Chestnut-sided_Warbler_Tex”, by TonyCastro, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by Félix Uribe licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Great_Horned_Owl_Mom_with_Fledge_(13790014223)”, Eastern_Kingbird_-_recent_fledge_(27494262954)” and “Eastern_Kingbird_-_recent_fledge_(28108894515)” , all by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Mimus_polyglottos_(Mockingbird_Fledgling)”, by GenQuest, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

American_Robin_Fledgling”, by SaltySemanticSchmuck, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Three_Eastern_Kingbird_fledges_patiently_waiting_to_be_fed”, by Wildreturn, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Sayornis_phoebe_fledge”, by Cephas, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Osprey “Chick-flying-6”, by William H. Majoros, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0