I was trying to count the small feathered mounds in the Great Blue Heron nest. They had hatched less than two weeks earlier, and we wanted to know whether there were two or three babies. My chance came when mother heron flew in with fish for them; the chicks became frenzied, and three round forms began jostling for position, squawking, and moving about. It was then that I glimpsed a pint-sized runt, chick #4, desperately trying to hold her own.
It’s a liability to hatch last, as an egg is laid (and hatched) every two days and you’re that much smaller than each of your nest-mates. 2.3 chicks per pair is our average this year, so four is a full house. The runt always, always, always gets pecked — often to death — by its siblings.
I watched in horror as the chicks fought over the regurgitated fish in the nest, violently driving the runt away with their sharp beaks. The biggest one was going at it so hard I worried that the baby might be decapitated in the fight. Instead, she backed off from the feed and draped her little head and neck over the side of the nest and just lay down. I could read her thought balloon: “Stay away from the fray. Better to be hungry than bleeding.”
I don’t expect her to be there in Nest 14 when I return next week.