City's hatchlings worth chirping about

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With spring upon us, Shanghai is welcoming its newest winged residents. All over the city, local and migratory birds are feathering their nests and nurturing newborns, who will someday soon be spreading their own wings.

While many human residents of Shanghai’s urban jungle may feel cut off from the rhythms of nature, there is a whole world of wildlife out there for those who know where to look.

Naturally, areas with abundant tree cover and limited human activity will likely attract birds looking to make nests and lay eggs. Aquatic and semi-aquatic avian species will also steer their winged course to secluded coastlines and river areas as they prepare to lay their eggs.

One of the earliest to start breeding in Shanghai is the common blackbird, which usually hatch sometime in April.

Common blackbirds are easy to identify in the wild. As the name suggests, the medium-sized birds are distinguished by their black or dark brown plumage and their bright yellow or orange bills. Juvenile blackbirds can typically fly in short bursts as early as May, when they can often be seen flitting from branch to branch with their lighter breast feathers.

One of the best places to observe these birds — as well as species like sparrows, light-vented bulbuls, green finches, egrets and herons — is the Minhang campus of Shanghai Jiaotong University. Located away from the hustle and bustle of downtown, the spacious and tranquil campus is decked with trees, river ways, lakes and ponds; natural features which make ideal breeding and hatching grounds for young birds.

Last week, I visited the campus with Bo Shunqi of the Shanghai Wildlife Conservation Management Station, looking for egrets and herons who are currently nesting here.

Walking past a classroom building, a juvenile grey-capped green finch was perched on a branch waiting for its parents to return with food. According to Bo, the youngster was only about 10 days old, as evidenced by its size and plumage. With yellow feathers just starting to come in on its chest and wings, the little thing bounced from one place to another in apparent expectation of the meal its begetters would soon bring. With time, the bird would grow into a capable aviator, much like the campus’s juvenile blackbirds which were then darting around the campus with confidence.

Among the egrets and herons, some chicks had already hatched and were chirping eagerly for foods. Elsewhere, some adults were still keeping their eggs warm with their bodies or putting the final touches on their nests.

While these structures seem so simple and fragile, they are meticulously created one twig at a time, the product of instincts honed over countless generations. We spotted one pair of egrets hard at work on their own nest — they flew back and forth, carrying individual twigs which were arranged and then rearranged. Those that didn’t fit perfectly were tossed aside in favor of a more suitable stick.

Egrets and herons usually have two to four chicks at a time, though it is rare for an entire brood to reach maturity. Disease, food shortages, predators and extreme weather can all have devastating effects on young birds. For the lucky ones though, survival into adulthood will mean pairing off and beginning the cycle of life once again.

Those observing wild birds, and their babies, should be respectful of these animals and not spook them with loud noises or sudden movements.

Guide to local birds

Common blackbird 乌鸫

Scientific name: Turdus merula

A member of the Turdidae family, subspecies of common blackbird can be found all over the world. Usually 20 to 30 centimeters in length with long tails, they are characterized by black and brown legs, yellow eye-rings as well as their orange or yellow beaks.

Young blackbirds have lighter plumage, and males are darker. They are omnivorous; eating insects, worms, seeds and fruit.

Breeding season starts in late spring, when the birds pair off and find nesting sites in bushes. The species makes cup-shaped nests. Females lay three to five greenish eggs per season. The chicks are blind and featherless when hatched. Their parents feed them for about three weeks after they leave the nest.

Cattle egret 牛背鹭

Scientific name: Bubulcus ibis

The cattle egret is so-named because they often accompany cattle to catch insects which flock around the animals. They eat flies and crickets as well as spiders, frogs and earthworms.

Cattle egret can grow to 50 centimeters in length and are characterized by their short necks.

During breeding season, adults have orange plumes on their backs, breasts and crowns. In non-breeding season they are mostly white.

Cattle egret eggs incubate 23 days on average. Chicks are born covered with down but are fully feathered within a month.

Chinese pond heron 池鹭

Scientific name: Ardeola bacchus

This beautiful species of heron sports red, blue and white feathers during spring-time months. Outside of breeding season, their plumage is brown and whites. Chinese pond herons are a freshwater species that live in wetland areas and feed on insects, fish and crustaceans.

Some Chinese pond herons are local birds that live year-round in Shanghai while others are migratory.

Grey-capped green finch 金翅雀

Scientific name: Chloris sinica

The grey-capped green finch a small bird with yellow, grey and brown plumage. The species is a common member of the finch family.

Mated green finches nest in trees and bushes, and lay three to five eggs at a time. Chicks are feed for about two weeks by their parents before they can leave the nest. They have strong beaks and eat mostly seeds.

Light-Vented bulbul 白头鹎

Scientific name: Pycnonotus sinensis

The light-vented bulbul is a Chinese species of passerine songbird with distinctive white feathers on its head.

The species eats seeds, fruits and small insects.

Females lay three to five eggs during breeding season, which runs from April to August. Incubation lasts about two weeks and chicks can usually leave the nest two weeks after hatching.

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