ARE MOCKINGBIRDS GOOD PARENTS?

by Whit Gibbons

August 30, 2015

Q: During my morning walk, I saw a nest with two baby mockingbirds in it. As I approached the bush the nest was in, the parent bird flew off. It perched on a nearby mailbox and watched as I took a picture of the hungry, open-mouthed nestlings. Why did the adult desert the nest? And do both mockingbird parents tend the nest?

A: Mockingbirds seem cocky enough to do as they please, so I assume the one you startled decided to land nearby, realizing this was a photo-op for her babies. I suspect if you had gotten much closer you would have had a video opportunity of a mockingbird in action trying to dive-bomb your head. They are fearless defenders of their eggs and babies, but for some reason this one decided your behavior was not threatening, Humans are often not viewed as predators in a suburban setting.

However, nest-defending behavior does not always work in the birds' best interest. Ecologist Brett Degregorio, who has done research on predators of nesting birds, says mockingbird nests are one of the most vulnerable to predation in the wild because of the parents' overt aggressive behavior toward anything they view as a threat. Stealthy predators such as observant snakes or hawks see this behavior as something akin to a sniper seeing a muzzle flash so that the nest can be homed in on. Yes, both parents, which look alike to us humans, stay with the nest and babies.

Q: My husband and I just moved to Florida, and our two cats spend a lot of time on the screened-in lanai (Florida-speak for patio). Do we need to worry about the cats catching lizards that get onto the lanai? Someone told me the black ones are toxic and can cause liver damage in cats.

A: I have never heard of any lizard causing liver problems for a cat that eats them, but some lizards, namely blue-tailed skinks that are black with yellow stripes down the body, have been reported by some veterinarians to be poisonous and can cause neurological problems. Of course, many people view cats as already having neurological issues, but in this case the symptoms are serious ones that can cause paralysis. A veterinarian told me of a recent case in which a cat that caught and ate a large skink of unknown identity suffered paralysis for a day but then recovered. The reigning professional opinion is that some lizards are indeed poisonous, but no one has yet determined exactly which species (three different kinds of blue-tailed skinks occur in the southeastern states) is the culprit. Or, the poisonous property could come from something a particular skink eats that does not affect the lizard but is toxic to a predator.

Q: I recently saw a very large softshell turtle in the road. I stopped to get it out of the way of traffic. Another woman stopped at the same time and picked the turtle up. She said she would take it to a nearby lake. The "lakes" in our area are more like ponds than lakes. Will the turtle likely be all right in such a small body of water?

A: The turtle will be fine. She will stay if she likes what she finds to eat; she'll move to another pond if she doesn't. I say "she" because you said it was a large softshell. Male softshell turtles are much smaller than females. So most likely this was a female turtle either on her way to lay eggs somewhere nearby on land or returning from the event. Males move overland primarily during the mating season in the spring in search of those large females. Most freshwater turtles are well adapted to moving overland to seek out new habitats when they are not pleased with the one they are in, such as a drying lake or pond during a drought or because of some traumatic habitat change like a broken dam.

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